“Under this dark sycamore”

It is sometime after midnight, and there is a man driving down a deserted Texas two-lane highway. There’s an atlas on the passenger seat, closed: he still knows where he is, roughly, and his goal at the moment is to get lost.

He drives on into the night, making turns at random, changing roads on impulse, avoiding major highways and towns whose names he recognizes. By three o’clock in the morning, he’s lost enough that he’s not sure he could narrow down what quadrant of the state he’s in—which is lost enough for his purpose.

There is a pale predawn light in the sky when he pulls off the road—another two-lane farm road with another four-digit number as a name—and onto the strip of gravel that functions as a shoulder. He opens the trunk, takes out a shovel and a metal lock-box of the sort one sees at bake sales and charity car washes—and walks perhaps a hundred yards away from the road, into a thicket of trees he can’t quite identify.

The dirt is dark, moist, easy to dig: he soon has a hole several feet deep. He picks up the box; there is a moment of hesitation. It passes, and he puts the box into the ground, covers it with dirt, walks back to his car, and drives away.

It is now somewhere in the neighborhood of six in the morning; he wanders the highways for another hour, not wanting to associate the grove of trees with a town too near. Somewhat after seven, he stops at a small-town diner, quietly eats a greasy breakfast, drinks several cups of bad coffee, and finds himself in the atlas—a process which takes several minutes. He plots a course back to the interstate, and thence home: a trip of several hours, in his estimation.

It is late morning when he arrives at home, but his children are still in their pajamas, eating breakfast. The oldest has made waffles. There is a moment of silence when he walks in, a hesitation, an unspoken thing with them in the room. Then the youngest asks: “Where did you leave Mom?”

“I don’t know,” the man answers; “that was the point, remember? Not knowing.”

That was the point, yes: the family had no real connection to the places where their relatives were buried, couldn’t even name cemeteries or towns; no real connection to the place they were living now, no plans to stay there longer than necessary. His wife’s ashes would be lost to them just as much in a cemetery with a headstone as in a grove of trees off a farm-to-market road somewhere in the big middle of Texas with nothing recognizable to mark the spot.

It didn’t make sense to bury her at all, really, since she was ashes, but the man didn’t want to scatter her, to let go of her in the absolute and final way that scattering requires.

It was a decision he would come to regret.


Day 200: Send a message in a bottle

I was awoken by bright sunlight on my face and a pressing need to urinate. I stumbled to the bathroom, knocking over bottles with each step, the noise like rubber mallets on my skull.

It was sunny outside; flowers were starting to bloom in the yard outside my cottage. Flowers? Wasn’t everything covered in snow just a few days ago? What month is this? It wasn’t important, at least right then: I needed food, water, aspirin, maybe a small glass of wine…

The quarter-gallon of milk in the refrigerator was a solid, and the bread on the counter was moldy. Breakfast was eggs and bacon—things that never go bad, right? While I was cooking, I reached for a bottle of wine—just a little, to tide me over until I could make coffee——there was no wine in the bottle, but there was a piece of paper. Paper? How the fuck did that get in there?

I scanned the kitchen: bottles everywhere, all of them with scraps of paper inside. I finally spotted an unopened bottle—a cheap, vile red, but it was better than nothing—poured a glass, drank it with my breakfast, and tried to reconstruct the last few months.

It was a blank.

I was sitting back in my chair after breakfast, drinking a third glass of wine, casting my eyes contemplatively around the cottage—most of which was one large room—when it finally occurred to me that, perhaps, the pieces of paper in the bottles might be messages from my excessively-drunk self to my mostly-sober self.

I grabbed the nearest bottle—and then realized that I was going to have to break the bottle to get the paper out. All of the bottles: dozens, maybe hundreds of bottles, all with scraps of paper in them. What to do with all that glass?

I grabbed an armful and carried them outside, to the fire-pit. I found a few logs, threw them into the pit, and broke the first bottle on one of them. The writing on the paper—well, it wasn’t really “writing,” it was indecipherable squiggling. I tried a second, a third, a fourth: all the same. A word was decipherable on the fifth scrap: “cold.” On the sixth was something that looked like “found corkscrew.”

I went in for more bottles.

Several dozen broken bottles later, all I had was a small handful of words: “wine,” “bread,” “piss,” “snow”—and a lot of squiggles. I was ready to give up, to throw the rest of the bottles in the pile and burn the lot of them—to consign the rest of the scraps to destruction, unread.

I couldn’t do it, though: surely the messages from the early days of the lost months would be readable, at least mostly? I had to keep breaking bottles. And so I did.

There were, I think, a dozen dozens. I’m amazed that I didn’t cut my hands more than I did, breaking all that glass. It wasn’t worth it: the squiggles got harder to read, not easier—some were just lines across the paper, like small children make.

On the last scrap—although who knows when I drew it, because I didn’t date any of them—as if I would have known what the date was——I didn’t know then, mostly-sober and smashing bottles…

…on the last scrap was a drawing of male genitalia. A hairy cock and balls.

I burned the cottage down, walked down the mountain back into civilization, and never drank again.


Day 203: Book pyramid scheme!

I bought a box of nanobots from an exceptionally foul-smelling drunk in a back alley; he claimed to have been a triple-agent for the US, the Soviet Union, and Andorra during the height of the Cold War. He had no teeth, which made his story more believable.

I took the nanobots home, programmed them, and turned them loose. They started cutting up the remaindered copies of The Book that I’d acquired for this task, making little blocks out of the pages—too small for me to see.

When I woke up the next morning, enough of the foundation was complete for me to see it: a four inch square, perhaps an eighth of an inch tall, slightly tapered. Two days later, the bulk of the pyramid was done, and the nanobots started putting the glossy outer layer down.

The capstone was set early on the morning of the fourth day, before I’d stumbled out of bed. By the time I awoke, the nanobots had sealed up the entrance to the crypt, interring themselves inside, hibernating, waiting to be woken. I put the pyramid inside a plastic box—I put that plastic box inside a bigger plastic box—I put that plastic box into a metal fifty-five-gallon drum, which I then filled with concrete. Once the concrete cured, I rolled the drum into a deep hole, covered it with dirt, and planted an apple tree above it.

I went to bed satisfied, my life’s work complete.


Some books I’ve read recently…

I miss writing full-length blog posts for each book I read—and, maybe, I’ll get back in the habit when I start reading for my qualifying exams, since I need to take some sort of notes on those books anyway——but I have a huge backlog of books that will never get full posts. Here, then, are short (and pithy?) post-lets on the books I read in my “Race as Text” seminar (led by the inimitable Steve Weisenberger).

William Faulkner, Light in August (1932): Dude named Joe Christmas (seriously) rolls into a Mississippi town in the 1930s, takes a job shoveling sawdust at a mill. That shit job is cover for his lucrative bootlegging operation. Nobody—not even him, because he’s an orphan—knows if he’s black or white. Lots of flashbacks: turns out his dad was a carnie, and either black or Mexican, which makes Joe black, at least in the South, especially in the 1930s. He kills a white woman (they’d been having lots of sex, by the way, and everyone hated her because she was a Yankee), and then he gets shot—but he deserved it, because he was black. (Just to be clear: the novel and its characters are racist, but I’m not. Really.)

William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1610): An exiled duke (Prospero), his marriageable daughter (Miranda), and their not-exactly-human servant (Caliban): they live on an island. The duke, who’s also a magician, shipwrecks his brother (who betrayed him) and some other folks (who were also involved in said betrayal) on the island with them. Some stuff happens. The villains eventually repent, Prospero forgives them, Miranda marries the son of the King of Naples, and everybody goes home to Italy—except Caliban, who stays on the island, because nobody wants him. Nobody dies, which is disappointing.

Henry Neville, The Isle of Pines (1668): One white (English) dude, three white women, one black woman: shipwrecked on an Edenic island in the Indian Ocean. They don’t have to work for their food, so they have lots of sex. Their kids have sex. They get divided into clans. Eventually there’s clan-on-clan violence, because the descendants of the black woman just can’t behave in a civilized manner. A Dutch merchant ship happens across the island, helps the three nice clans put down a revolt by the “bad” clan, and then leaves, taking the story (scandal! sex! incest!) back to Europe. Also: “pines” and “penis” are anagrams. Because, you know, penises.

Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688): An African prince and his true love are separated—as all true loves are—sold, separately, into slavery in Surinam, where they’re reunited—as all true loves are. The prince (Oroonoko, who gets renamed “Caesar”) eventually leads a slave rebellion, but the rest of the slaves decide they’d rather not. Oroonoko beheads his very pregnant wife, and is going to then go on a killing spree, but instead spends several days on the ground, in the woods, next to the body of his dead wife. He’s eventually captured, at which point he disembowels himself—which is pretty awesome—and the colonial governor has him sewn back up and nursed back to health so that he can be executed properly (castrated, dis-armed, burned).

Mary Hassal, Secret History, or the Horrors of St. Domingo (1808): Letters from an American woman in Haiti to Aaron Burr—written during the brief period (1802-1803) in which the French attempted to retake control of the island following the 1791 revolution. Mostly the letters are about the narrator’s sister’s unhappy marriage to some French dude (the letters are vaguely fictional, but not far removed from “what really happened”: the author, whose real name was Leonora Sansay, was married to an unpleasant Frenchman, and was probably having an affair with Burr, who was—and I’m quoting Weisenberger here—”a notorious womanizer”). Not nearly enough horrors: somewhat disappointing.

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787): Lots of stuff about forests and rivers and ports and census data and blah blah blah—I skimmed a lot of this book—with some fairly vitriolic anti-black rhetoric in the middle of a chapter on “Laws.” An example: black people smell bad, because their kidneys don’t work as well as white folk’s kidneys, and so they secrete from the skin what white people piss out. Seriously. In his defense, I guess, he wanted to abolish slavery—but he also wanted to send all freed slaves back to Africa, because he thought whites and blacks couldn’t coexist without killing each other in a war of total extermination. Our third president, ladies and gentlemen!

David Walker, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829): “Fuck you, white people. God is going to punish you for making us slaves, and—in His great mercy and justice—he’s going to punish you by letting us kill you all. Get yourselves ready.” (This is an eloquent and passionate pamphlet, despite the fact that it’s also fairly violent in places—lots of “God’s going to let you fill your cups to the brim with wickedness and then pour out His fiery wrath on you.” Good stuff.)

Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Huntly (1799): A tale of two sleepwalkers: the Irish Clithero (such an unfortunate name) and the American Edgar. Things get really interesting when Edgar wakes up in a cave, with no memory of how he got there. He proceeds to kill a panther with his “tom-hawk,” eat it (or part of it) raw—in the dark—and then he kills a bunch of Indians on his way home. Spoiler: Clithero drowns at the end (he is, after all, Irish, and therefore unfit to survive).

Herman Melville, Benito Cereno (1856): Impossibly, stubbornly unperceptive American (merchant) ship captain encounters Spanish ship at a watering-hole in the South Pacific. Spends almost the entire novella thinking that the Spanish captain is both rude and mentally unstable—finally realizes that the slaves have taken over the ship and killed the real captain, and are planning to murder him and his crew, and take their ship, too. Lots of killing, at the end—and based on a true story!

George Schuyler, Black No More (1931): A satire: A black doctor (Dr Crookman) invents a cheap, quick, painless process to turn blacks white (by giving them accelerated vitiligo): no blacks means no racism, right? No, not really. Follows the exploits of Matthew Fisher, a whitened black, who goes to work for the Knights of Nordica (the new Ku Klux Klan), stoking white fears of blacks who don’t look black anymore but are still really black underneath—making lots of money in the process. In the end, white is the new black, and everybody’s still racist.


Day 236: Test the butterfly effect.

Originally scheduled for August 24.

“Chase a butterfly away from its flight pattern to disrupt meteorological systems worldwide.”

I saw no butterflies today. If I had, and I’d chased them from their flight patterns, would it have actually changed anything, or was I always going to have chased them, and so the real change would have been to not chase them away, except that path wasn’t and never was open to me?

…no, nevermind, I’m not going there this evening.

This is why we have narratives, right? To make sense of all the impossibly small and unknowable factors that make up big, complex, world- or life-changing events? I and my two of my friends and colleagues read Clarissa over the summer — and I promise I’ll write at least one last post about it at some point — and at least one of the things going on in that novel is an attempt (or parallel attempts) to figure out what happened, what thing or things propelled the paragon of virtue into the power of a libertine who eventually raped her, and how those things (and which of the things?) lead to her death. (And thus I reduce 1,500 pages of densely-printed text to one long and cumbersome sentence.)

We need narratives: nothing makes sense without them. At the same time, narratives make sense of things by ruthlessly trimming away all sorts of things that might or might not be important, and by loading down the things that are left with all the scraps and shavings of importance that the ruthless trimming left behind.

Anybody remember Day 43? (I didn’t, really.) An exercise in trimming, which is what this post needs, despite being barely 300 words long — all of it a digression, digressing from nothing in particular. My thoughts are the butterflies, and I’m chasing them around, fueled by bleary-eyed tiredness and bourbon, and it would defeat the point of this day’s task to edit, to revise — choosing one word instead of another, over and over, is what got me here instead of wherever it was I thought I was going when I started out.

Well, there you go. Time for bed.


Day 235: Stare at this stranger; memorize her features…

Originally scheduled for August 23.

“…should you ever meet her, call her Aubrey and she will tell you a secret.”

A woman sat down next to me on the train. I glanced at her, reflexively, quickly, and went back to the novel I was reading: Faulkner’s Light in August. She settled into the seat, opened a magazine, started reading.

Two stops later, as the train pulled away from the station, I said — neither loudly nor quietly, and without looking up from my reading — “Tell me a secret, Aubrey.”

I waited a beat, and then another, and then turned to look at her. She was staring at me, a look of puzzlement and something that was not quite, or not quite yet, anger — and something else flitting around behind her eyes that I could not identify.

We looked at each other for a moment, and then another, and then she said: “What did you say?”

I said: “I said: ‘Tell me a secret, Aubrey.’ ”

She said: “My name isn’t Aubrey.”

“I’m not sure that matters,” I replied.

She paused, and looked away, and then looked back.

“There are no secrets left,” she said, “no secrets that can be told, anyway, because the telling makes the secret public. It used to be that you could tell a secret to someone, and it would go no further, or go further so slowly that by the time it became what we might public knowledge it didn’t matter anymore, the reasons for keeping it secret had passed or no longer obtained. Now, though, there is no grey area between secret and something everyone knows — once told, the secret takes on a life of its own, contagious, viral, an incorporeal zombie that bites and infects and spreads so fast that one wakes up the morning after telling to find oneself in a wasteland, a world wrecked and forever ruined. And so what secrets I have I will keep to myself, and anyway my name isn’t Aubrey.”

After some amount of time had passed, or maybe as soon as she stopped, I said: “I’m sorry; I’ve had a few drinks too many today.”

“…but it’s 9:30 in the morning,” she said blankly.

“I know,” I said, and went back to my reading.


Day 195: Make a snowball.

Originally scheduled for Thursday, July 14 — motherfucking Bastille Day, that was.

I went outside, holding the deck of cards. Once, we’d shuffled them together — before you were gone — and earth had fallen from our fingers, and clouds and thunder filled the sky.

It was hot, outside. It has been hot for a long time. The sun was not yet up, and the heat was already oppressive, stagnant and heavy and thick.

I held the cards in my hand, and thought of snow. I thought of you, and the time we held the cards, our fingers moving together, shuffling, the earth falling from our hands, the clouds and the thunder and the howling wind.

Before you were gone.

I held the cards, but I was afraid to make them move: it had been so long since I’d taken them out, so long since I’d tried their magic, so long since I’d felt there was any point in trying. I stood, in the rising heat, looking without looking at anything in particular, my mind wandering — it was too hot to think — wandering through memories of you, and memories of a time when it was cold, when the world was blanketed in snow.

The heat became tangible, reified, and I ceased to be myself.

 

When I came back to myself, I was lying in the garden, and the world was blanketed in snow. The cards were scattered all about me. Whether I — or the cards — had conjured the snow, or whether I had wandered out of myself, in a fugue state, until the heat broke and winter came on, I never knew. I suppose I could have asked, but whom would I have asked? Who was left?

I rolled onto my knees, and staggered to my feet. The sun was high and clear, but gave no warmth.

I bent down, took a handful of snow, formed it into a ball, and threw it at the place where you should have been standing — where once you stood, while we watched the storm we’d called forth, and were afraid.

Then I went inside, poured a glass of wine, and faded away.

(Apologies to Charles Williams.)