Charles Freeland & Rosaire Appel

from Albumen

The meal is an unidentifiable fowl, miniature birds laid out upside down on plates the color of plums. The woman, Beulah, puts down her hoe and invites me to occupy the chair opposite hers in a dining room about the size of a boxcar and decorated with portraits of what I take to be ancient family members, though guessing in this instance is probably just as risky as flight. It sends you down a winding mountain path on either side of which you may eventually expect cannibals. Or people dressed like what both you and they imagine cannibals must dress like, including of course dried grasses placed strategically about the body and arm bands made of copper. With designs etched into them by hand or machine, it’s always difficult to determine which with the naked or untrained eye. Even the trained eyes sit in the sockets of heads that must, on occasion, forget whatever training has been drilled into them in the past and proceed according to the emotions which possess a formidable wisdom of their own. It’s when you combine the two, when you allow the one to incubate the other, that you create an environment conducive to the spinning of tales that have no teller and so do not qualify, according to standard definitions, as narrative proper but instead fall under that most coveted of all categories, the un-categorical. They seem to engender themselves out of nothing the way salamanders are said to appear in the mud after a conflagration, a natural torching of the forest by lightning strike or even (so long as it is not too extensive) lava flow. The two of us are served by her idiot son, the hulking youth who watched my approach from the window and warned Beulah in a voice that still hangs in the air as if it were more properly an aroma. When not fetching further delicacies from some unseen kitchen, he stands in the corner with his arms dangling petulantly at his sides and his tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth. Any attempt to make eye contact is met with a grunt like that you might expect of a loved one sleeping when you ask a question directly into her ear. This is almost immediately followed by a confession of some sort, though you must possess the key to the arcane language it is uttered in to be able to comprehend what exactly is being said. Unfortunately this key, of course, is available only in your own sleep and your own dreams where it inevitably sits idle — it goes to waste — because you do not need it in that particular universe. You are fluent the moment you arrive.

What we tell each other in moments of crisis comes flooding back two or three days later when the crisis has dried up, when the concept of time itself has abandoned us to our own devices. It shrinks to about half its size and if you go looking for it, you must adjust your expectations accordingly. When I try to accomplish the same thing by examining a candle flame through a magnifying glass, the pain is so severe, it reminds me of the time I fell down a flight of stairs and there was no one there to minister to my wounds. I was as alone as if I had woken up at the south pole. We like to think our trajectory is something that can be mapped. To prove the point we frequently produce oversized pieces of paper and point to certain parts of them as if to signify that is where we are located at any given moment and that we will be located somewhere else shortly. But don’t bother to get out the instruments that link these places together. The rulers and the felt-tip pens. There is no time for that. And even if there were, you’d just come up with some random design we wouldn’t recognize. A parabola, say, with its center of gravity disturbed by the fact that there is no gravity in that place where parabolas exist. That theoretical place full of dots and lines to connect them and a whole lot of nothing in between. Perhaps I am being too technical. I have this bad habit of explaining things I do not understand and ignoring those I do. I probably picked this up from my brother who was older than I, and so prone to ridiculing my every decision even when that decision was sound. When it might have resulted in my getting the girl, for instance, or at least impressing her with my ability to make a decision and stick to it, impressing sufficiently enough, I suppose, for her to hang around a while just to see what might happen. Of course, my brother was flesh and blood and held that against me as well, accusing me of adopting an outer oval covering of calcium – a shell, in other words -- just to try to embarrass him, to “one up him”, as it were, just when he was starting to come into his own. When he was starting to understand the difference between the carburetor and whatever other parts and structures you are liable to run across in an internal combustion engine as you are trying to take it apart. When he was just starting to think his life might not wind up being a nearly endless series of events after all, with no means of determining how they are related, how they are connected one to the other outside of the perhaps entirely coincidental fact that he is present bodily whenever such events occur.

We are dealing here with a concept belonging to that category of concepts that has a name in Greek we haven’t gotten around to translating properly yet. Perhaps this is due to the fact that we don’t know Greek, but it could also be because we have yet to realize the full implications of the concepts themselves, of what will occur once we take them down off the shelf and let them loose on the world. We discover then that the serial nature of every event will lead some to cluck their tongues disparagingly. This doesn’t mean we have to do the opposite. It doesn’t mean we have to go around toasting everyone’s health, but, of course, to refuse is going to earn us a reputation for poor breeding in certain company. A reputation for blaming other people for our own sins and then starting to believe it ourselves. Beulah is recounting a past visit to the chiropractor where she claims the walls were covered in dollar bills and when she attempted to make small talk, the others in the waiting room lowered their eyes to their shoes and shifted about nervously in their chairs as if she had pulled a revolver from beneath her skirt. That she was, in fact, concealing a revolver beneath her skirt should not have mattered, nor should it have induced such a reaction unless some of her fellow patients were possessed of extraordinary powers of intuition like those that lead most of us to formulate some version of Zeno’s paradoxes before we have ever even heard the name of Zeno. Once you have mastered the idea of fractions, you are already halfway there, so to speak. And then there is the little matter of the imagination of childhood which, in most instances, turns the physical world into a workshop, a funhouse and torture chamber all at once, without any prodding from the learned anthologies. Without any assistance from those who take great pleasure in breaking the experienced universe down into its component parts and then insisting that those parts too must be divided, and so on, ad infinitum. I think Beulah’s monologue unendurably dull and the fowl excellent, possessing something close to the flavor of those nights when you stay awake for hours, not because you can’t sleep, but because you refuse to. Because the agony of putting sleep off one more second multiplies itself and soon all of existence is an amalgam and parade of pain and ecstasy and half-dreams with no end in sight, something leaving us with no reasonable hope of (and, perhaps as a consequence, no desire for) escape.

I must take certain sounds back, must retrieve them from whoever held me enchanted when I first heard them — the dull ring of a brass bell or the throb of a propeller moving through the air. This is something I have promised myself so as to avoid sinking someday beneath the weight of everything that belongs to other people, or belongs to my interaction with them, particularly if that interaction had something to do with the flesh of the thigh or, more accurately, the renaming of the flesh of the thigh to something less clinical sounding, something more personal, like the “tabula rasa.” We love complication so long as it functions like oregano, so long as it doesn’t make us wish we had spent the day in bed as we had originally intended. Thumbing through out-of-date newspapers, hoping to find in previously overlooked passages information about the other people who happen to live on our block, or the coming of the circus, which can not help but be of interest now that we are old enough to purchase tickets for ourselves. I think sometimes I will spend the rest of my life longing to inhabit a moment that happened toward the very beginning, when everything was still in flux and nothing was certain. There was no way of determining which moments were of value because they all came and went so quickly. And let’s be honest, our judgment when we are younger is judgment, really, in name only. It actually more accurately resembles knee-jerk decision making of the most irresponsible sort. Tossing colored stones onto the ground and trying to discern a pattern. Saying the opposite of whatever has been uttered just moments before. This is why it’s probably best if I simply accept what has been given to me by fate as if fate were an actual thing. As if you could see its outlines in the mirror if you were standing in the other room and you just happened to glance in that direction. Of course, should you insist on examining the mirror more closely, on going into the room to search in the closet and behind the door for whatever it was that had been reflected, you would most likely be confronted with nothing. Why? Because fate finds bald curiosity of this sort anathema. It thwarts it at every corner. And who can blame it? Some things you just shouldn’t know, some things you just shouldn’t see. These are rules that have been established for our benefit and we violate them at our own peril. The moment we turn our backs on them, the moment we decide it’s better that they had never been formulated in the first place, we find we occupy a world so perilous and primeval and odd we have no way to give it so much as a name. We run entirely dry of appropriate designations.

Charles Freeland is Professor of English at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. Recent books and e-books inlcude Eucalyptus (Otoliths), Five Perfect Solids (White Knuckle Press) and Variations on a Theme by Spinoza (red ceilings press). His website is The Fossil Record.

Rosaire Appel is an ex-writer visual artist in New York involved with abstract comics, asemic writing and wordless books. (website: www.rosaireappel.com).
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