They took off on a Thursday, swampy with goose dung and sycamore. His English had a peculiar accent -- I could not make a single word out at first and then, slowly, deciphered: impostors, perfect linens, birds of paradise! He was talking about the state of being beside oneself, the state of being ready. In spite of that long night without sleep, he was there! He had it! And lucky, lucky day, the movers were due any moment, as he held the last petri dish above the pile of old newspapers. Lavish gifts and ornaments were already boxed up, and she had put the kettle on to boil. Sunny, green Vietnamese honey heated next to it on the stove, in a pan of water. Melanie, that bitch, for that was her earthly name (he called her, in private, falcon, pigeon, birth miracle) was all curses and predictions: warm milk and bread, charm school. I was reminded of a bad batch of fortunes.
After this protracted diatribe, they left -- no forwarding address -- as if about to drive off the edge of the continent or else be swirled up into the sky in a curtain of gulls wings to become a constellation! Panting across the room wall to wall I felt I was going crazy from the sudden isolation, so I repeated something I'd heard the old professor, Herr Astute Lecher with eyes only for his overly scented peasant wife, say many a time into his worn briar on the front porch, spewing fumes at the mosquitoes: "Simply the thing I am shall make me live!" Being prone to improvisation when no one is watching, I changed it to "Simply the thing I am shall make me liver!" But I abhor liver, though it smells deceptively wonderful fried up with onions and bacon -- I've been fooled more than once! So I changed it again, and satisfied, began sucking my big toe in a corner to comfort myself at their sudden, ungrateful departure. "Simply the thing I am shall make me lie here," I mumbled, wondering how, exactly, they had cursed me, before going off to the movies alone.
A spaghetti western was playing at the town's only theater, reminding me of noodles. I took myself out to the Chinese Emporium all-you-can-eat fried dumpling and fruit salad bar, and helped myself to two pocketfuls of fortunes. Later that night I sat on the floor in my corner by the light of the single candle they'd left behind, and attempted to piece together the quilt of my fate, my lucky numbers, aspects of my personality heretofore unrevealed! Inside a curiously fragmented cookie I found a hastily scrawled note from inspector number 6, one Juan Diaz no less, instructing me to meet him behind the K-Mart. Taking this as a prize omen, I set out with my candle in the night, determined to find him or die. Our small town has no K-Mart, of course, so my search would be long and full of turmoil, danger, brambles, unwashed hair. I wanted no less for myself, the youngest and oldest child, the one who sets out to find the family fortune and befriends the animals, unlike her stupid, boorish brothers. I smeared peanut butter on the backs of my hands and waved them about hoping to attract little birds who could tell me things I'd later need to know in the dungeons of evil kings.
Juan, Juan I'm coming, my darling. I will accost every stranger I run into until I discover the whereabouts of the Big K, as they are now called. My life is in your hands, Juan. Do you work in sporting goods, I wonder, as I could use a tent and some other supplies. Do not fail me, my love, I'm on the way!
After a long session, night found us in a pub. Once I'd crossed miles and miles of prairie, how I loathe it, taking itself so seriously, like a long winded discussion of Shakespeare. Oh the fragile ecology of the place -- it was almost completely buried by a sand dune. Only by planting dune grass all along a path to the door was an entrance kept open. Good thing they had plenty of barrels stockpiled in the cellar!
Here, at the pub, a pair of dueling professors stood in the back, obstructing the dart board, sparring and spilling their turnip wine each time they made a jabbingly delicious and irrefutable point. A couple of swordsmen alright and not a university in sight. Poor fellows, exiled to the dunes with no buggy, no boogie board, no babes, no bathing suits. They had no idea how boring they were, but they belonged there, the crumbs in their beards providing that touch of ugliness Degas speaks of. The dart board became increasingly attractive and we couldn't resist zinging a few over and to the sides of their massive heads.
Poison darts in the throat -- we used to play that game back on the wide prairie, yessir. Pygmies and Jungle Jim. You got hit and you dropped on the spot. It got so I would sleep with my hands cupped around my neck, curled up in our root cellar. I never could figure why my father had built a special little underground room when he wouldn't build me a treehouse. When I would ask, he would offer me his chair. Strange man.
As if they could read my mind around the whizzing darts -- they were quick, those old goats! -- they began discussing sympathetic magic, contiguous versus metaphoric. You either had to directly deliver the fingernails, hair locks, and what have you in a cocktail and see it drunk down by the object of your passion (contiguous), or else do the voodoo doll routine (a metaphor). My, my, I was beginning to understand the symbolic process. The names of famous linguists jumped unbidden to my lips and I began to speak about competition. My partner, the famous Juan, cried out with happiness, "A game! a game!" and the old men had the good sense to jump out of the way. They went to smoke in a corridor parted by the dune grass and were not seen again in that town.
Someone later said they'd bought a wagon from a woman named Stella and gone off to hunt humpbacks. "Contiguous," I remember thinking, not without a dart of anxiety, as the ecology of the place is so very frail. Perhaps they will reappear at a future point, discussing Borges or the boles on trees. I kind of miss the leafless prairie, the old house riding on it like a ship, the curtains blowing in the windows, the chenille bedspread with its impression of the last body that ever lay there, undisturbed.
Juan told me a story as we traveled. It came into his mind as if he kept a Teletype machine stashed in there. He has a deep voice, the kind they call "sonorous," hypnotic really. It lulled me.
One art, the green gold woman seems to say to her adoring merman, the painter busy sketching, lost in his own private seaworld, swimming in his velvet knickers, aware of her hand under his as a rock supporting him, sea moss and all.
Her mother told her "He will need you to be weak so that he can be strong," but she paid no mind. "All men are monsters!" she'd cried, to which daughter Mary primly replied
"Life is an adequate blessing," as she snapped a pear off the miniature tree potted there in the window sill, drawing his sun. "The permanence and warmth of Southern light and colour promises us liberation, release into an earthly paradise!" she exclaimed, biting into the hard golden green pear to make her point. A winged worm she found there at the core, and she threw the fruit away in horror, spitting out the acrid flesh.
"See what I mean?" her mother had no restraint whatsoever. "If you don't doubt it, how can it be proven?"
"Similarly, if you don't know it, how can it be proven?" Mary replied with dawning wisdom.
"Indeed," said her mother, pleased.
But the fruit had got in her and she swelled, Mary did, and the more she swelled the more solicitous her merman, who brought sweetmeats and plums, grapes and apples. When she birthed the melonsized babe, he wrapped it up in the drapery and took it to his kingdom. He painted still lifes, portraits; she was allowed in for feedings, and otherwise relegated to the corner.
Mary's Mother to the rescue! She enters one rosy afternoon with a vial of swamp water and tosses it on our artist the second he lowers his brown curls toward the canvas. Shouts and cursing! He gathers up the fat parcel, runs down the street and jumps into the bay. Mary says the art of losing isn't hard to master, getting rid of him was an adequate blessing and doesn't need to be proven. She takes up painting landscapes, shuns fruit, hankers after the green grass and cloudy skies of the North.
The story so startled him with its premonitions that he left me at a gas station in the middle of Wyoming and went on alone. When he returned a month later he said that he'd thought I'd been asleep in the back seat -- that old story. Pretended to be frantic. I let him reclaim me from the bandit couple who ran the truck stop -- by the morning after my abduction it was I at the bar making coffee and eggs and a kind of scone unlike anything the British have ever seen. It could have been an alright life; I wasn't opposed. The "Prairie Scone" I was thinking of calling it, imagining other menus, replacing the "Silver Dollar Pancake Platter" and (this always made the men reach into their pockets to check their change) creating new dishes involving mountain oysters. But my destiny was still with Juan, so when he opened up the scuffed yellow door and burst into tears I let him weep into my apron, gave him some breakfast, kissed my scruffy captors goodbye, and plugged the jukebox back in on my way out.
Most nights I lay my head on the pillow. My head is a ball, totally detached from my body. It is free to roll like a marble over a smooth surface. So I like to lay it on the pillow where it can rest, without oscillating, swaying, bumping the wastebaskets and furniture.
I hear things from the places my head rolls to -- behind the draperies for instance. I hear Juan instructing the maid: "The wastebaskets needn't be emptied" he says sternly. His precious drafts are in them, ready to be uncrumpled at a moment's notice. "But do scrub the mildew stains on the shower curtain." Well, hasn't he gotten high and mighty!
I think back to summer nights in various small towns I have lived in. My eccentric neighbor near the video store/massage parlor/ice cream shop was always outside sitting in his folding lawn chair surveying his garden, his driveway, his street, fondly, like a genial, low-rent sort of god. I can still see him thrusting his finger toward a weedy bush of some sort, with points where its leaves should have been, saying "In the evening when the light is just so" -- from moon or streetlight I was never sure of his precise meaning -- "it is a beautiful celestial porcupine!" I thought I knew what he meant. I liked the little guy, though others would yell at him not to do that, his landlord especially: "Don't paint that siding! Don't keep cats! Don't splatter your cigars on the sidewalk!" When they really meant to say to him, "Can't you grow a little?" People are so uncomfortable in the presence of midgets, dwarves -- use whatever word you like: 'small people' is currently fashionable though not very descriptive. 'Short' doesn't begin to give a true picture. Juan, for pete's sake, is short by American standards. Even to bed he would wear black boots with heels -- very Spanish. You see how I am casting him into the past tense already? And he put on an outrageous Babalui accent when he called from the window of our motel room, "Hi girls. I'm so sorry I can't come out tonight," kissing his hands and showering the neighborhood cats with his blessings. Who knows? He may have been playing 'Pope's in the Vatican/Waving to the crowd.' "Kiss my ring, Amanda, I will grant you -- " Here he would pause. Which would it be? Land in California? No. "My forgiveness." Big of him.
Just now I'm radioing my head to roll quietly back to me from where it has been spying on Juan, Juan the leprechaun! I have to escape, run away, catch the night train, get out of town pronto, for Juan has turned out disappointing. He has aspirations for a novel, it's true, but he's stuck on inch and a half long sentences. "Patience," I tell him, impersonating the globe of a lamp, but he grows angry at my impertinent bodily cleverness. Tonight I will drug him with peyote mushroom penne (easy to make on a hot plate), steal his padded bowling bag, and depart.
"Why, why do we expect beauty?" The actual and the true so rarely coincide, and when they do it's just another form of psychic malfunction. Like dreams where a dancer limps round and round the mirrored room, ghastly and old in a ballerina outfit. Mirror disfiguration. Unless you wake immediately she will cackle and this will be your death.
One overhears the most amazing things in cafes! They mark you for an American and treat you as if you were deaf. I was watching a small boy waylay tourists, commanding them in a flurry of speech noises and gestures -- nothing you could call "voice" in the Gluckian sense, but effective nonetheless -- to blow bubbles through his red plastic bubble wand. Smart boy! He knew better than to make it a bubble pipe. He knew the squeamishness of foreigners. While they shrugged their shoulders and, against their better judgment, stooped and blew in a extravagance of good humored "when in Rome" holiday spirit, he rifled their pockets, of course. They patted him on the head and left, thinking him a local cretin, perhaps, who ought to be indulged.
The misery of inertia! I sit hour after hour drinking occasionally from my small glass and thinking about fashion resistance as a spiritual practice. The fact that I am down to my last sou has nothing to do with it, and I would've told Juan so if he'd have turned out to have been at all what I had hoped. Bitter disappointment and now I'm on the road again, poor orphan. Compared to these tourists I am as a small monkey in his flat round hat and red jacket. I arrived last night and slept in the boathouse, where the salt in the air has left a fine layer over everything and I had this dream. I was young and lithe. I had the body of a dancer and my knees made no sound when I went down, my back perfectly straight, my stomach flat, doing my deep knee bends before preparing to dive, in the nude, with a knife clenched in my teeth.
"Come, come" said the waiter, pleasantly urging me to drink up. I decided to find out what a sloe gin could possibly be -- I've always wondered. He fancied himself a comedian! Shuffling along with long pauses between each egregiously drawn out step, as if playing a game of 'Mother May I?' with himself while bearing a tray with a single shot of Bombay Sapphire! "Hah hah," he couldn't help himself. Everyone joined in, even me. Encouraged, the small boy came over to my table to count his earnings. Seeing me so shabby, he pushed some coins my way -- the better to buy my continued silence, I supposed, the young mafioso! But then he made a lewd suggestion and I glared at him and saw to my astonishment that he was old, old! Another dwarf! My life, apparently is crossed with dwarves and Juans and professors. My head aches. It's clearly time to go find a spot where I can remove it and put it to rest for the night in its little leather nest.
An usher is an usher in the way light is let in -- the heavy black cloud of velvet curtain drawn back like God revealing that the world of the spectacle is a sham, the performance is over. Washed out daylight, horn blaring traffic. At night it's not as bad since the darkness absorbs -- an alliteration of black holes, perhaps. But I like best the shadows cast by the red sconces in the lobby. On the streets, that girl I'd catch in my headlights -- patches of purple spreading over her brown face -- out walking after dark, as I, also, am inclined. Hiding, revealing. Pathways not open during the day.
Lucon de Ber reminds us that ushers are not lovers -- no. They're henchmen bent on revealing the sordid overexposed world I'd slipped so easily from, imagining I'd left it behind. No doubt a substantive body of theory has existed for some time on this subject, based on the musings of French philosophers circa the 1960's and employed with such enthusiasm, such fervor, by recent academics also in the habit of citing Bahktin: Foucault, Barthes, Derrida, Althusser, Deluze and let's not forget the women: Kristeva, Irigaray, Cixous... and I'm way behind, but a good idea is a good idea any time. A question, something to pursue.
Anyway, a high rate of trying does not necessarily produce success, I've noticed. In fact it has, in my experience, the opposite effect. Perhaps it comes from not paying attention, from closing down street after street, whole cities and civilizations instead of writing a single version of a history. "Don't get frostbite," my last lover said to me, implying that I was cold. And causing me to remember a particular church pew my mother tried to herd me into when I clearly had my sights set on a different one. What a look I gave her, she said.
If the theory of relativity were true, I could make up for some things. What I do now could have an effect then. Would I wake up tomorrow and look out my rear window at the parched garden plants and remain unforgiven? I don't search the sky. Everything is obscured and I stand like a tree unsure of itself.
After a movie uptown, we'd take the subway to Chinatown, and go stand around the back of the restaurants and watch them smoke a whole hog, fascinated and repelled by the carcass, the way it hung snout down and turned so slowly in a circle while the men in stained white jackets talked animatedly nearby, and smoked, and occasionally slashed at it with long, sharp knives. We'd eat the $2.98 combo plates: fried rice, spareribs, and a third thing, then go get a pack of 'Wahnstons' from the cashier. The best years of our lives.
Sure it's a courageous step, taking a year of unpaid leave toward finding your heart's desire, requiring no more than new walking shoes. People hear about it and pretend they think it's great and then offer you a full time job. They want you to do something, go somewhere, make something of yourself. It's no wonder we stoop; as we grow toward old age we wither. All quiet on the western front.
Well, once we went because we wanted to. And everywhere we went -- to the mountains, among the tiny blue flowers which lived only in minutes, hardly half a day; or to the shore, where turtle eggs were protected by children wielding sticks -- we were greeted with affection. Goat herds played pipes as we wound our way up steep paths. Egrets saluted with long tenuous limbs. And in the cities -- for we did also go to the cities -- an orchestra of traffic horns welcomed our secret arrival. We stayed at small hotels near the railway station, a different one each night. But we were young then, full of hope and trust, before all the nonsense got knocked out of us.
So now, safely ensconced in a real job, with a 401k begun twenty years late and no travel on the horizon -- no motorboat, motorbike, motorhome -- how could someone even imagine taking a year's leave without pay to sit home and stare out the back window at the morning glories climbing up the peeling garage wall? "It's a courageous step," people say. They hear about it and pretend they wish they could do it too and then start filling in your days for you. "You could volunteer..." Shades of Ann Landers.
It was freedom we were searching for, tromping about the countryside, blowing in and out of towns like the winds that kicked up in Utah forcing us to abandon plans for camping and stay instead in Church's motel where an evil looking Mormon down on cash leered at us when we said we'd share a double bed. And the only place in town to eat was in a sort of store that sold greeting cards, batteries, and barrettes. Johanna dragged the heaviest furniture in the room and blocked the door, after we'd locked all the locks and drunken the complimentary instant coffee from an electric pot, set up, unpleasantly, in the bathroom. A greenish mold climbed up the cement stucco walls along sliding windows that we watched all night for traces of Mr. Church, come to capture us and sell us to a cousin of his to be his 40th and 41st wives. We cleared out before sunrise, filling our cooler with ice from the machine with the card that limited "guests" to one (brown plastic) ice bucket full per day. I imagined a posse on our tail all the way to Bryce Canyon, where we finally regained some calm amid the pastel rock formations that remind one of cotton candy, of fairyland, until the dust kicks up and gets in your nose.
It was easy riding in the air conditioned rental car, enormous ranch upon enormous ranch all along the highways. All I could think of was the fencing -- how long it must've taken and how hot they must've got. No sign of animals or water, just that white sandy silicon that glistens in the distance so you think you've spotted a pond. Well, some like it that hot. The red rock country though, was delicious. I got full on it and had to close my eyes, the saturation was so intense at Kodachrome Canyon.
Johanna and I stuffed ourselves on burritos with green chilies, with red chilies. Eggs with beans and cheese for breakfast, and chorizo, sopapillas -- it got so I could hardly climb the canyons. Pretty soon we'd have to give it up and head for home, unless we decided to rob a credit union. No stagecoaches anymore. Week after week, those dumb stages with their dumb passengers carrying their dumb jewels and priceless watches. Week after week, guys in black on horseback watching from the same battered hills, charging down, holding up -- disguised only by kerchiefs. Week after week the surprise that the mail hadn't gotten through.: "And I was expecting some important documents from Carson City, Sheriff." Week after week I was there, riveted to the t.v., with a sense of vertigo when it was over. What else could I do with my life?
But the heat got to me. I love the deserts, the occasional iridescent green lizard, the rock bridges and arches and canyons -- oh the canyons that stretch out below like a vision from the past, as far as you can see nothing but its own country. It got so I'd want to fling myself off the edge and Johanna had to keep an eye on me. So we went home, but home had changed. We couldn't find it. So we split up. I left her for someone who sold insurance, feeling that I needed the security. It didn't last. And now all I can think of is our wanderings. In the middle of a unit on antecedent/verb agreements my students have to pull me out of reverie, and I find I can't explain anything about plurals anymore. Soon I will lose my job and everything I am holding will slip away whether I choose to let it go or not, just as everything I once held has already done. So why not, I ask myself in the dead of night, listening to the 3 a.m. train freighting through town, why not be the one to let it go?
I decided to follow the long erased tracks of the professors, who'd disappeared into the dunes off Provincetown to follow the humpbacks. They'd raised quite a ruckus with their red wagon and a pet monkey called Stella, but it had been a long time. Dunes covered the bar as if a humongous tongue of sand had swept in and licked it into oblivion. Competition had increased among whale watch boats with names like "Millennium" and "Star Ship Cruiser." Hauling tourists out and back, racing from the coastline, slicing the backs of the minkes who happened to be in their way. The headlines of The P-Town Sandbar asked in Chicago Bold: ..."Is this something we're going to see more of? Is it the boats? Is there something going on with whale behavior?"
I mused about it over a beer at a cafe on Commercial Street, one of the few still safe from the encroaching sand. The sand that year was like a monster. It had an intelligence; it had a plan. In fact, everything seemed crazy -- the frequent air crashes, for example. They asked you before boarding for your next of kin. Or the rising cancer rates -- it seemed no one was surprised anymore; people expected it for themselves and their pets. Stock in chemotherapy pharmaceuticals was going through the roof. I quickly flipped to the "Yard Sales" section and got out my reading glasses.
A tall stranger sat down next to me, after raising his shaggy eyebrow first to inquire whether his plan was to my liking. I nodded, afraid of my own thoughts. He introduced himself as John, which made me feel tired, began talking about the Tao.
"Laziness," he said. "It's the first sin -- the only one worth bothering about since we have only one lifetime."
I stared at him. "Laziness?"
"It's the first sin," he repeated, enunciating each word separately, like a man who has drunk too much. He paused, and then said rather quickly, "Killing, for instance." I immediately saw what he meant -- the paradox of it. Faster boats, for example.
"If everyone would just slow down" I said.
He nodded and mentioned Milan Kundera. I wrote the name down and promised myself to look him up if ever I returned from my adventures. If the town hadn't been completely swallowed by the sand by then.
"No," he said.
"I beg your pardon."
"You've got to do it now," he said.
"Forgo your 19th century romantic escape plans." He jotted something quickly on a cocktail napkin and left. There was a strange stomping sound as he walked away, like someone with a peg leg. I looked at his heavy black shoes and the way he walked. He was on stilts, I was sure of it.
A few days later I was there on the campus of Carnegie-Mellon with an appointment. The shaggy professor showed me into his office. I almost lost sight of him in there -- it was a large room, all dark wood trim and bookcases, globes, maps, clutter. There was a sort of gloom, a fog about the place as he followed his beard ever deeper into its depths, and I tried to keep his broad, cheap suited back in sight.
He told me about a "Ruth-Aaron" pair, one of several on the campus of Carnegie-Mellon, walking around collaborating like mathematicians. Every day they'd have a different number on their backs, and people would follow behind them, copying it down. He'd wear 7; she'd wear seven; he'd wear 1; she'd wear one. Then they'd change. He'd wear 5, but she would wear 4 -- what did it mean? They were voted most peculiar and given very furry coats to wear to Homecoming. The professor cleared his throat. I wondered what this had to do with humpbacks and the cultivation of slowness, but I felt my life's work was about to begin. I had purpose! Life had meaning! I embraced the old guy and he collapsed into my arms, dead of a heart attack. I considered him lucky.
Note: The "Ruth-Aaron pair" has to do with the fact that the sum of the prime factors of Babe Ruth's home run record of 714 is precisely equal to the sum of the prime factors of Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715 home runs -- see MY BRAIN IS OPEN (by Bruce Schecter) on the life of Paul Erdos, who proved a theorem describing an infinity of Ruth-Aaron pairs strewn among the rest of the numbers. (Thanks to Joan B. for this "useless" and therefore "beautiful" truth.) (Thanks too, to the various authors I have been inspired by in this piece.)