THE HEARTBREAKING NAUTILUS (a short story from DIFFICULT TEXTS)

heartbreaking

Compare this story to the story I posted immediately before.  Very different technique (a technique fleetingly and mildly popular in the mid-to-late 20th century, when many readers enjoyed approaching texts as poetic puzzles, the solutions of which might apply to life). Power is both the puzzle and the solution to it.

 

1. Swan

But why not, said Swan. His nickname was Beef. Why not what, said Carne Rand, the fucking rich boy, taking a seat. Swan said, Why does it always have to be sinister, the shadowy cabal? Why can’t it be good? Why can’t there be good cabals that are shadowy and doing good. Working on some kind of generational plan for changing the total consciousness paradigm of a civilization the way that bad people have? They’ve got their secret societies and masons and handshakes or whatever so why can’t we have ours? The unbroken line of intent thing. Right? Eight hundred years of intent is a powerful thing. Knowledge is power. Supposedly. But knowledge is only power if you withhold it, right? But what if the withholders were doing it for nice reasons for a change? Noble reasons. We could start now.

Swan continued: remember when you were joking about why can’t we bring back the Afro?

Carne smiled. That particular remark had been inspired by a particular porno.

Swan said, well, imagine. Years from now we’re out of college, successful in the careers we have chosen. Say we’re worth a few million each. No, more. Like, say, thirty to fifty million each. That’s not impossible. It’s not unreasonable to assume.

Carne tipped back in his chair with the bristly back of his shaved head in the cradle of his meaty interlocked hands and his smile size increased. Swan wanted to tell him I’m responsible for that chair if you crack the legs. It came with the dorm.

Swan said say we chose a very young black girl who shows some talent. Get her at a young age. She’s still tender and slender. We sponsor a whole lifestyle of proper diet and really fine education. Part of the deal is that she doesn’t straighten her hair. Ever. She never straightens her hair. She grows tall and fine with this stupendous Afro and a gift at singing and she’s been groomed with more, you know, I don’t know, like, a 16th century courtesan-at-Versailles-or-something… versed in many languages and playing the harpsichord or, okay, the saxophone and the fine art of conversation and what not; we’ve invested a few million into making her this renaissance kind of black chick with an IQ you could choke a horse on and, but, yes, she can sing the paint off a Cadillac. And don’t forget she’s got this stupendous fucking Afro and we buy the best songwriters and producers money can buy. Let’s call her Super Sister. We buy Super Sister a number one in the charts kind of career, essentially. And she would be this massive influence. Black girls would stop straightening their hair and eating at the kitchen of the McDonald’s plantation and they’d be taking harpsichord lessons to emulate her. Whatever. All for just a few million dollars and the invisible machinations of a shadowy cabal for good. I mean. Fuck. Why not?

Carne’s eyes were closed by now and he looked almost asleep in his chair. The smile froze nicely.

Why not indeed, he said.

 

2. Victor

Swan’s trip to the WC has levels to it. There are fixations about not sitting square on the seat. For one thing the horror of the flush-wave dolphin-nosing his sweet little hair-purged balls. He tries to time evacuations to coincide with home-time but from time to time there is no getting around it and it comes in public, the call, sometimes, with importunate timing. The call is a widescreen mountaintop scene of monks blowing hard on spiraling five-meter horns filled with concrete. Swan thinks I’m reading the wrong tips about diet again.

Swan excuses himself with this kind of head-bow mis-gesture to the black or mulatto executive with something somehow Japanese about her (the suit? the seal-sleek hair? the sexual haze of death she marches through?) and moves with what he thinks of as fuckworthy grace through the point de capitoned leather of the doubledoors and down the out-of-body corridor toward the light. The door to the water closet you normally need the emperor’s touchbutton code for is propped yea-open with the black or mulatto janitor’s serf-bucket so Swan edges sort of sideways through the gap stepping over the bucket to justify entering by not actually opening or otherwise touching the actual matter of the door or the doorframe. Like an asymptote or something. He fantasizes swearing on a Bible that he did not open or touch this door. He fantasizes a baffled plainclothesmen finding no prints. He fantasizes Peter Falk giving him a sidelong glance of flummoxed admiration. The mere-mortals’ water closet is a whole flight down. And then he achieves his disappointing revelation which is that the forbidden water closet is identical to the water closet he should have traveled a whole flight down to and then comes the secondary impact of the epiphany that the difference would normally be him just not fucking being here. He is why the door is usually locked.

The body is not a machine it’s a community of machines. The gears of Swan’s shit machine are engaged and it is, of course, the end, not the beginning, of a process, an intestinal effort activated perhaps in the middle of that lecture-pretending-to-be-chit-chat from the black or mulatto with something somehow Japanese about her. The end-segment of the process becomes a process. The end of the process becomes a process in its own right with an arc and accoutrements. You can break down the stations of the cross into interlocking “stations of the cross”. The skull-white throne of Golgotha. He tries to remember those care-free college days. He visualizes a heart-breaking nautilus. Fibonacci.

…And then he will have to wipe and he will have to look at the result each time he wipes because if you don’t look you won’t know how much you’ll have to keep looking and wiping. You expunge or wrap and re-wrap the memory of the streaks and the smells and later walk into a restaurant pretending not to know or have a clue exactly how those fritters will end up. The notion that the planet is a closed-system nauseates him when he dwells on it. There are planets out there with zero shit. Swan thinks I’m getting ahead of myself here I haven’t even shit and I’m thinking about wiping.

The knees are bathed in milklight. The knees appear deceased. His knees are actually bearing weight as though he’s waiting for a starter’s pistol. He wants to groan and pant and finally give birth.

Very little of his weight is on the seat when the man they call VHR or The Master of Disaster or Death and Taxes comes in coughing. This is an entity that nobody has ever said hush to. This is a despot on the throne since before he could walk. He farts down a suit leg at the urinal shaking the leg. Swan should not be in here and withholds final delivery for fear of the telltale plop. A lush (even woodland) splash and gurgle on worn urinal candy of impossible duration is Swan’s warning to hold his plop in. The stream goes on and on for superhuman units without reaching the trickle part when VHR’s phone rings suddenly Beethoven’s Fifth so loud and stereo that Swan kind of lifts up off the seat and bangs the right elbow on the sharp-cornered high-security roll-dispenser. Blood he won’t be aware of until later as he goes over in his mind the terrifying conversation he is over-hearing that will seem to want to kill his mind as he is hearing it.

 

3. Elizabeth Houghton-Rand

I couldn’t fucking believe I was having a serious quote philosophical debate about whether or not to violate, abuse, torture and otherwise mortally fuck with a seventeen-year-old heiress for the sake of a political movement my comrades had as yet not quite managed to convince me even existed outside the endless late night bull-sessions we had in some white boy’s dorm-room before we’d even met her. White boy pays for the keg and he’s suddenly what, Malcolm X? I kept kind of muttering under my breath to myself that this is really happening, guy. This is not a dream. That this shit was only an illusion to the extent that life itself is and waking up from this weirdass scenario will be impossible to achieve by any means less meaningful than death itself which is not a thought I even wanted to sneak up on. Let alone exemplify. On channel 7 news. She was passed-out on an air mattress in the fucking bathroom of Kwame and Dookie’s shabby-grandiose off-campus housing and it was not, as yet, any kind of a crime, no matter what Walter Cronkite tells you.

And then Josephus… Josephus… I remember wondering who had met that quote psycho first. Okay. He wasn’t Kwame’s friend. I asked Dookie later and Dookie said fuck no. I never knew the bumpkin existed before x-moment in time which I’m saying was scripted. With that big-assed bloody dick? Like he was seriously pulling a sword out the belly of an infidel and so forth. Like what am I seeing? Plus taking forever.

 

4. Josephus

Nobody stopped you from taking your dinner trays to your dormitory because you were black. You were taking your dinner trays, to your dormitory, because you were black. Nobody stopped you, from taking your dinner trays to your dormitory, because you were black. You were at Moorbury College because you were black. Your scholarship to Moorbury depended on your being black but you would not have been at Moorbury without a scholarship if you had not been black and needing a special way into a college that wouldn’t have been interested in you if you hadn’t been black. You put the tray on the bare mattress of the narrow bed in your single room and sat beside it and winced through the nasty work of escaping your snow-clogged boots while your dinner cooled. You had to remember to buy a thick rough doormat. You had wanted a thick rough doormat since the first time you saw one at the age of seventeen. As a result of that program.

You needed matches and canned ravioli for emergencies and a can opener. You would also need to buy a pillow case and sheets. Your first Student Aid check would come on Thursday which was a four-day wait. You’d been sleeping on a naked pillow on a raw mattress under a beach towel for three days in your long underwear with the heat cranked up. A sock hit the cement floor with living weight. You saw that you hadn’t clipped your toenails since the week before taking the two-day bus to Moorbury and added a toenail-clipper to the mental list. Thursday was also shrimp or steak dinner day. Tonight was cheeseburger and tater tots or home fries and fruit salad with chocolate mousse for dessert. You had three envelopes of powdered strawberry milkshake drink left in your suitcase.

You had never tasted chocolate mousse but you had heard about it. You had always assumed they set those on fire but that was another dessert. You noticed that the dark room was not very dark and even in the dark your foot looked very black and shiny because it was wet because the boots weren’t made for snow. The movie poster on the wall you faced as you peeled your other wet sock off was just out of reach. You had gotten it for free during your unusually late orientation and had not seen the film it was advertising nor heard of the actors appearing on it. They did not look famous to you.

You needed six “C” batteries for the cassette recorder you kept in the box it had come in and some more 60-minute tapes and added this to the to-buy list and reached for the dinner tray with your legs folded under. In a soft shell of doubled long-underwear you hadn’t removed in five days. You had come to your orientation two months late. Snow blown straight through the floodlight cutting across your view of the campus from the dorm room window provided the illusion the whole empty building was in motion like a majestic ship. The cafeteria was crowded and brightly loud and you had walked right out with your dinner tray, no questions asked.

You left the light off and sat on the bed eating the food you were embarrassed to admit was the best food of your life and you watched the snow. You wondered what it meant that no one had stopped you. You wondered if you had a blank check for anti-social behavior out of fear or compassion or same old disregard. Through the veil of the snow and at the other end of the very long walk dividing the icing-caked lawns lit by haloed lights at broad intervals like gas lamps from a Dickens engraving was the sharp black geometry of the new Moorbury chapel which had gone up in the 1960s. Stained glass at the core of the jarring shape caught needles of light from cars turning the corner in the distance occasionally heading for town or St. John’s to the south. The older chapel was not visible from your dormitory window and was on the older side of the campus where all the buildings were actually ivy-drenched scale-model cathedrals and you felt the unspoken sense of off-limits. You had walked over just once during your unusual two-month-late orientation to have some papers signed in an office by a woman who seemed surprised the whole time you were standing in her office in the grand old building. Surprised or ashamed. Or maybe she wanted to hug you. The tater tots were delicious. When you had bought a thick rough doormat on Thursday you would feel you had accomplished something. The first doormat you ever saw was in front of Victor Rand’s mansion.

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