Energy in this room. Furnishings in this room. Particles of life. Photons. Papers with ideograms which are not always loyal. A television’s most sincere dreams. I cherish the t.v’s dreams like those of a bride. I feel a twinge when I must turn it off. It is like leaving a lover when I must leave the room. I close the door behind me, to let the television know that I am its protector. When I find dust on the forehead of the television, I could weep. But it lets me know how faithful my television is. When I see a television thrown out, lying with the garbage in a street, I feel an urge to rescue it. Even if it is dead, it deserves better. How could you not offer a decent burial to one of your closest living relations. What sort of animal lives in that house?
A man was night fishing at surf’s edge in the darkness of a new moon.
He felt a strong tug on his rod and the battle began with what he thought must be a hammerhead shark. But as he began to win the contest and reeled the creature to shore, he saw a tumble of arms and legs. These were so pale that they glowed with their own sort of moonlight. These human limbs were almost phosphorescent.
It was a boy, he figured a corpse, some luckless soul drowned at sea.
As he pulled the body onto dry sand, using his hands now, he heard a sputtering, and fish-like sounds came from the mouth. Though it appeared to be a boy with long jet black hair, webs and fins were all about the body. This “boy” had human legs. It was not a merman. The creature seemed stunned from having been pulled from its element.
“Speak!” the man commanded the creature.
But it could only gurgle in the air. Perhaps, he thought, it could speak only underwater.
So the fisherman took his club and beat it to death.
When the fisherman served the flesh of the sea creature in a soup to his son, the boy was puzzled by the strange taste.
“What sort of fish is this?” he asked. A clear distaste was evident in his face, the twisting of his handsome features.
“Monkfish,” the father replied, without looking up from his own bowl.
They had only each other as family. The boy’s mother had died in childbirth. He had learned to trust his father. Though the young man did not like the taste of the strange “fish,” in fact despised it, he dutifully finished the meal.
Soon after that night, the fisherman’s son fell sick. He fell into a torpor and then a fever. He raved in his bed as he tossed and turned. He talked constantly of the sea. He told his father he would die if he were not placed in the sea.
A doctor was consulted but could do nothing. The father felt great shame for having fed his son the flesh of the creature. Oddly enough, he himself had not fallen ill, though he had eaten the same meal.
After more than a week of his son’s suffering and worsening of his condition, the father took his son to the sea. The moon was now restored, bright. He carried the boy to the surf’s edge. He laid him in the soothing, wet sand.
As soon as he began splashing some water on his son’s face, the boy seemed to improve a little. He said it helped.
“These clothes,” his son moaned. The father understood and helped him out of his sweat-drenched vestments. He was horrified to see the fins that had sprouted on his son’s arms, on his legs near his ankles, the webbing between his toes and around his neck.
The boy began to crawl towards the sea.
The father saw him struggling and helped him to reach a depth of water where he could float. He could feel his son growing stronger by the minute as they went further into the ocean.
His son smiled. Then he laughed.
“Thank you, father. Thank you thank you thank thank you….” he said as he swam away.
(This is my adaptation of a Japanese folktale of which countless versions exist.)
There is no way to talk about it without sounding like witches. Their toys are still found in the forest. Sometimes, you come upon a stuffed animal sitting under a tree, moss growing nearby but the plush pet unmolested by this green fur. The animal will look so fresh, seemingly set down only a moment before, untouched by the weather, the long time they have been there in the woods. You might believe the child’s hand had just let go, it looks that warm. If things can look warm. You might believe that the child hides behind the trunk of the tree against which the furry pink elephant rests his back. For perhaps obvious reasons of mojo, of superstition, with an eye to good cess, the country folk talk about the children in a thinly-veiled code. For example, they drop off the first letters of their names. Bess becomes “Ess” and Tara becomes “Ara.” Sometimes, they merely use the children’s initials. Everyone remembers how the daughter buried the cat in the box. How the younger boy discovered this, returned with the cat in the box, put it on the dining room table in the house, an offering to his parents. She wept, was confessed. The cat became a religious symbol in their household. Feline martyr. The white cat glowed. Her siblings drew and painted it. Had it been the medieval period, there would have been a stained glass window in which the cat figured prominently, heroically. She forgave the little brother who condemned her. Who outed the witch in her. And then she took him for a walk deep into the woods one day and he was never seen or held again. She wept. She “lost” him. He was never found. She was very clever. She could roll her spirit shut the way a pill bug rolls its body shut, the way it becomes a little armored pill. The young father (so young he looked more like her brother) saw when she went for the next boy; it was a close call with a snowstorm, a wicked game. A grandfather’s boat was involved. And then the father took her for a walk deep in the woods and “lost” her. He said it wasn’t as easy as all that. He came back with strange marks on him. Later, he woke up with a tattoo on his body that he had never seen applied. Then the rest of the family disappeared and their house remains empty to this day. The forest remains empty. The trees are still hung, here and there, with little photographs in frames. That is her work. There is always a cool breeze, even in the warmer months. Even in the swamping heat of July. The forest keeps this cool space and its blue shadows. People blame it on a cave, but there is no cave exhaling this cool air. Children who come through know not to touch the little icons of the photographs. Not to touch the trees even. But you can see her entire family in the photographs. And other long-dead people who are mysteries. Which ones are hers? Who knows. The animals sit under the trees. Old stuffed animals with strange eyes of sorts you don’t see anymore on the animal dolls we give our children. Icon eyes. Terror and amusement at once in those old plastic eyes. Strange ecstasy. Maybe it’s the way the eyes are when one sees a human circus. One knows the horror. A dark part of one might be titillated. She is close. She is listening to us. It cannot be otherwise, for that is what the story tells us. The trees feel compassionate and invite us in. There may be a child’s tea party, the tea laid and waiting for us. Plastic tea set aping porcelain. Teacups steaming. Miniature table. Tiny chairs where tiny witches sit. But they are not what we imagine. We know better. One child walking barefoot encountered a lobster in the middle of the woods. It was crawling along the forest floor, though the ocean is more than an hour’s drive away . Sometimes a cloud will descend on a clear blue day and fill the space between the trees. And some days there are elephants. They seem lost. They cry as they wander through the fog and a girl’s laugh curdles your listening. Some unwise children leave her notes. These she reads. And sometimes she responds. Sometimes she comes to “help.”
They said you missed out on so much being the way you are. They said it without punctuation like that and so it will go. On. Without punctuation. Not the way a life is when someone stops on the stairs merely to be aware they are stopping on the stairs. Shall we address Gertrude Stein from here?
This painting is a solid color and is uterine.
They said that but whether they addressed me or not might be irrelevant if I took it to heart, to the place underneath this potted plant. And that cop standing next to it. The truth is they were talking to someone else and I overheard and it was suddenly addressed to me as though I were the someone else on the p.a. they did not actually address, but talk about behind her back, as people generally do, because language only exists behind backs, everywhere, really, this is true. There is nowhere to say anything that is not behind many, many backs. That poems exist is proof of this fact. They are so far behind all human backs it is ridiculous.
I was putting cheese on my grilled cheese at the time, middle of the night, and my hands were freezing, they were just ice, and I imagined a tumor in a place in my shoulder, I had to check, but the hands were a misery, a punishment, a cold of Inquisition (they didn’t use only fire; think), iciness of a surgical x-ray table you have to lay on, just get it done, verify there is no tumor, flip the grilled cheese sandwich, discard thoughts of vice, remember that the second side always browns exponentially (existentially) faster (it’s like a second marriage). Don’t make the same mistake again and flip the sandwich, did, it is now on the plate and who were they (we) talking about, the ghosts in love with criticism of others? ghosts on stairs? Let me open up the melt of the sandwich and add a fresh slice of tomato, but salt it first, like memory, salt the slug of the world. Get down into the dissolution of the salt in a flavor. You can’t hold it anymore. That red pulpy thing. The salt and the tomato are inseparable like beach and skyline on a perfect day. The festering voices go past like countless buses and you must learn to sit and knit inside them. You are not young enough to die on a ledge anymore.
The poor old man was not right. When we opened his fridge, we saw that it was filled beyond our wildest imaginings, if people actually had “wildest imaginings” about the insides of refrigerators. Do you get excited about a refrigerator’s guts? Some people do. But only a small number of the items in the Frigidaire were actually food. The shelves were chock-full. Ass to mouth were rocks, tools, books, chewed gum on a pink plate, tiny oil paintings of cats he had known, anything really. Anything he could fit in there he had crammed in. Old loon non-censorship universe. There was a brick. What is the expiration date of a brick, we wondered. We asked him why he felt the need to keep such items in there. He said he didn’t want his refrigerator to feel “unrealized.” He knew it existed to make things cold. And he was sympathetically “feeding it things” that it could chill. We understood that he meant in his own schizophrenic way to say that this is what some people do in relationships. They give things to the other person to freeze. Sometimes things get frozen to death. It was confusing to him. Whether the fridge was his lover or not. There was a goldfish in there frozen to death in the ice cube of a Mason jar. He also said he liked his milk to be so cold that he couldn’t even hold it. He was a very, very old man. Now the fridge is out on the concrete in front of his house. So I guess we don’t have to go inside today. Or ever. “Your refrigerator rocked,” Katy said to the air. So we smiled and left.
A frustrated man in an unhappy marriage traded in his wife for a gorilla.
It was a male gorilla, but the man put it in a truly vavoom pink polka dot dress, put makeup on its face, and placed a smart, pink toque on its head. The he took the gorilla out, everywhere, just as he had been accustomed to do with his wife.
The man was able to take the lead when they walked together and even steer this “ship of two,” and the gorilla didn’t run away from him in the stores to look at clothing or jewelry or other shiny things such as would formerly happen with his wife.
The man was now able to speak first. He was able to speak as much as he wanted also. But he didn’t know how to speak first and the gorilla couldn’t speak, so they went everywhere together in total silence.
Other men in shopping malls would see the man and his gorilla walking together, the man’s right arm wrapped around the hairy, left arm of his companion in a somewhat forceful, proprietary manner, and use this example, this object lesson, to demean the wives or girlfriends walking beside them.
“She might not be much to look at,” they would say while staring directly into their partners’ faces with the searchlight of an unstated accusation, “but just look at how well he’s got her trained.”
And then the wives or girlfriends would look at the sarcastic, smug expressions on the faces of their husbands or boyfriends and immediately think about replacing them with gorillas.
Archibald’s mother was looking for him. She went into her son’s bedroom to find Archibald’s skin, but not Archibald, lying on the bed.
She hadn’t known that boys could do snake tricks like that sometimes. But it didn’t really surprise her. She had learned not to be surprised at anything boys do. She ran in her silly, marvelous little heels to the back door and put one hand against the wrinkled screen. Her fingers nervously tapped across the gritty, orange-rusted, orange-frosted metal of the screen, as though it were a decayed typewriter. At the same moment, her other equally manicured hand went up over her brow to perform the function of a hat visor as she stared into the full-bore assault of a summer sunset. She was trying to see if Archibald was playing in the field of wildflowers behind their house, as he so often did.
The glare was too much, so Archibald’s mother had to step outside. She could see that many boys were playing.It looked like a spirited game of tag. But she still couldn’t make out any details yet. They were all just silhouettes against the ridiculous histrionics of light the sun was engaging in as it left the earth, or rather, as the earth left it.
Then she saw that all the boys had shed their skins. It wasn’t just her Archibald. All the boys looked like mice that had just been born. It disturbed Archibald’s mother when she realized how much all the boys looked alike now. Which one was her Archibald?
But she had her answer as soon as she asked, since one red (well, actually, his exposed musculature was almost pink) boy came zipping over to the woman, only to laugh, “Hello, Mother!”
She was not amused.
“Archibald, I’m going to make a roast, and when I stop in your room in fifteen minutes, I expect to see you in there and back in your skin. You will be going to bed early. But I may bring your supper to you there if you’re there the first time I check. If not, not.”
And then she turned and stalked off to her kitchen. She wasn’t going to dignify any possible disagreement by listening further.
Archibald’s mother trusted that he would be a good boy and listen, so she prepared a plate for him. The generous slices of tenderly bloody roast were still steaming among the baby carrots as she carried the plate up the plush stairs, walked it down the plush hallway and entered Archibald’s plush room.
Archibald was in his bed, a stuffed animal laid over his face like a mask. He looked like a little shaman. It was a raccoon. The fake animal covered his eyes. The tail hung down over the side of his face, the side of the bed. It was a realistic looking tail.
“Now that’s my boy!” said his mother. And she brought the plate to his side.
She saw that Archibald had not only gotten back into his skin, lickety-split, but he had also discreetly put pajamas over it. She loved how the pajamas had feet in them that glowed in the dark. They glowed a shade of green that only exists in the movies.
Mother served Archibald in bed. She even tucked his napkin like a bib. It was the royal treatment.
She had been stroking his belly while he ate. The child found it disturbing. The mother did not.
“I’m quite enjoying your roast, Mother. And the baby carrots are sooo succulent.”
“Good. I’m glad you’re enjoying it, sugar flakes.”
“But, Mother, have you looked in my eyes?”
And it was like a lightning bolt. Archibald’s mother looked into the eyes inside Archibald’s skin. They were not Archibald’s eyes. They were the same color, almost the exact same hue, but they did not have the sparkle unique to the eyes of her son Archibald, which was a bewildering sparkle like lightning in a lake where somebody is politely drowning. These eyes presently inside her son’s skin were more mischievous eyes. They were more monkey eyes.
“Bobby? Bobby Wilkins? Is that you? Is that you inside my boy’s skin?”
He giggled like a drunk in Las Vegas then, though he was just a boy. He felt himself an accomplished prankster, a Loki, the monkey at the top of the tree. And he had even gotten some mature female companionship out of his shenanigans.
“And I have something else to tell you,” Bobby said.
“Go on,” Archibald’s mother said, seemingly without trepditation.
“My Daddy has been wearing your husband’s skin for a week. And you never even knew! Aren’t daddies funny?”
Bobby threw himself back on the bed, clutching the stuffed raccoon, and squealed like a freak.
“Bobby, I knew. Look closely into my eyes now. It’s Mother.”
Bobby leaped forward, puzzled. He realized she spoke the truth. His mother was now wearing Mrs. Hassenpfeffer’s skin. How had he missed that one?
“I’m sorry to inform you, Bobby, that your father is dead. Now we need to get our things together and get out of here. Please run to wherever Archibald is and tell him you need your skin back immediately. Tell him we’re going on a family trip.”
Bobby hesitated. He was to the door but he hadn’t exited yet. He stared with horror and fascination as his mother slipped out of the dress and skin of his best friend’s Mom.
He stared at the crumpled breasts lying on the floor.
He wondered whether it should have turned him on. He was at that age. After all, wasn’t he someone else? Wasn’t she? But wait. They were both the same.
“I mean it!” Mother suddenly bellowed at him. Bobby saw her teeth had blood in them. Or was that just lipstick?
All he wanted to know, really, was who started it.
But that would take thirty years.
And by then, he would have started collecting skins. Skins nobody really wanted to give him.
“It all began as an innocent prank,” he would often be heard telling anyone who would listen to him. But this was on death row. And he had written a celebrated book about tattoos by then. He had published it the year before the FBI closed in. Nobody reading this bestseller had realized at the time that their enjoyment of the erotic images contained in the book was actually necrophilia.
The name of the book was Skin Jobs.
In the Dollar Tree located right across the small street from the rather deadly housing projects, there is an interesting cashier.
She is young enough to be a natural artist. She is old enough to feel death crowning in her. In other words, she’s an aging kid.
Whenever she gets a customer all by himself or herself, young or old, when there’s no one else in line, no one else in the store, she pauses before handing them their merchandise in those depressingly bright cellophane bags with the store’s name printed on them.
She clears her throat in an almost undetectable way, and then she launches into this fantasia: “You are standing in your grave. This is as good as it’s going to get. The happiest days, all the most oblivious ones, are well behind you. It will not get better. It will get worse. At first, it will be like a record skipping. It will happen subtly, it will happen slowly. You’ll have little dips, little trips to the emergency room, little jaunts to the psychiatrists. Then it will increase. The aftershocks will outdo the earthquake. You will spurn friendships as nothing more than shared miseries. You won’t even possess the imagination or willpower to cheat on your spouse. Parts of you will begin to turn to Playdoh and other parts to steel. Your pubic hair will look like a dead ferret. And then you will realize, near the end, self-stripped of all friends and family, that someone is standing on your head. Someone is standing on your head as you stand in your grave and you begin to sink. You can’t even tell who it is. You can’t look up. But they’re there for sure, and you have the pain of those constantly shifting shoes on the top of your skull to prove it. Because the floor of your grave is wet mud, it’s quicksand, and you’re just going down into it. Like dogshit. Inch by inch. And your hands are tied up. Your hands are holding these cellophane bags full of shit from the dollar store. Your cat food and batteries and off-brand pudding boxes are causing you to sink deeper into the final quagmire, which will probably be a struggle for breath and a prayer to a nonexistent deity, beseeching him for merciful help in stabilizing your skipping heart, which is now like a stone sent skittering over a rain pond in an auto graveyard. Your fate is ricocheting off other’s people’s faces, they’re talking behind your back in your hospital room, and your sinking blood pressure won’t let you even argue with them. You will no longer be able to even do the basic things a body must do to remain a viable blood balloon floating around this planet. That’s it. The earth like a too-thick chocolate milkshake closes over your head and then the top of your head, which is bald anyway, already showing your skull through its skin, and you begin drinking that milkshake of death through all the holes in your face and skull. You sink down into nothingness It’s the best day you ever had. The End.”
And she always ends with “Thank You. Have a nice day.”
The respectable thing is that she delivers this in a really dead monotone. It’s like she doesn’t even care whether you’re listening.
Most of the people just say, “Thank You” back like being dead is no big deal. Probably most of them already knew all this shit. She did cause a few to go into deep depressions. But probably she thinks that is good for them. Maybe she’s right. Who knows.
One day, she will be gone from that Dollar Tree. In her place will be a man who has all the spirit of a broken calculator on a card table at a yard sale.
And that cashier will attempt to smile, and it will feel as though someone has just stapled your body. It will feel as though someone has just stapled your body somewhere very unpleasant to be stapled.
Some young men are playing pool and watching as the sails of a small boat become pure distance out on the bay. When the sun gets low enough, it breaks up their syntax. Their young women are holding their babies in hard chairs, in dark corners of this room. The young women are going deep inside themselves and watching, jogging their babies on their knees as young printers will do with sheaves of paper. The room’s high ceiling is covered with a ridiculously ornate, white boiserie that fell from a high style so long ago that nobody can even remember. It looks like swallows should nest in it. Drinks move at an agreed-upon level in space, and space is agreed upon too, except where certain emotions flare up like sunspots or the fringes of a corona. A handful of hours later, after night puts a bandage to this scene, the thing mistakenly called silence plays like the faintest old record in there. The smoky bay is the last to leave this room (and, really, not until morning). The bay turns the blue walls of this room even bluer, gives out many somnolent shades that percolate in drizzled dark, and when the light finally comes around like a headache, it collects all these synonyms for the night and leaves.
I am wearing a shirt I named Bryce. My name is not Bryce. The shirt just looks like a “Bryce.” So I named it that. I think I bought this one drunken, summer afternoon in Kohl’s. I don’t know how many years ago. I was probably talking to the shirt. I was alone. I was probably very happy. That was the way it was then, euphoria in-between the hours like broken windshield glass cutting through me. I mean when I was an alcoholic. But I did have a shitload of credit cards then. I was responsible. Because I wanted my addiction to continue. I was probably wearing sunglasses inside the store. I was probably sexually attracted to Bryce. What does Bryce even look like? Bryce looks like a hideously ugly tattoo. Let me take off the shirt and stare at it. Let me study Bryce for you. Let me pay the horror forward. There is a big electric looking dragon, blue body againt egg yolk-yellow background, snaking across the back of the shirt. Below this dances a series of higgledy-piggledy human skulls that look a little like they were applied as drab, white spray-paint. If Bryce was a human being and not just a shirt, he would probably have to pay for sex. He’s that ugly. But I found him just now in the back room of my house; he was convenient; he was there. So I am wearing him. If this were Chinatown, if it were 1974, Bryce might just get lucky. If there were any sexually ambiguous bikers out on the block. Bryce would probably wilt in the Chinatown heat. He would melt as his cheap, synthetic fibers would under an iron, if that man were to just reach over and put his hands through the holes of Bryce’s sleeves. He’s a terribly shiny, terribly easy shirt.