When Looking Isn’t Seeing Isn’t Believing

By John Madera

Call me Molly blooming, but what is writing but a dog’s frantic scraping of its hind legs after voiding, viz., defecating and urinating, a territorial inscription, the act evolutionarily encoded, and what is reading but the observation of same, or, better, the ground whereon such scratchings are scratched, the reading of your bricolaged brick-of-a-book, though, a sifting through a cereal box trying to find the prize, the finding of your bewildering ream of a work-in-regress, within your so-called life’s life’s work, a quarter century ago, less a surprise than a confirmation, said finding occurring shortly after your office had caved in, the weak floorboards beneath your chair, where your rump was slumped, snapping like branches in a hurricane, the harrowing sound of it still echoing in my ears, the worker’s face who’d found you less drained than effaced, by the abjection written all over it, this man finding your body—severed limbs scattered about the detritus, your head a mashed melon, its melancholy still somehow evident—buried beneath not only the house’s structural guts, the monosyllabic slap of slab and strut and beam and chord and post and joist and tie and pipe and truss and duct, but also beneath a mountain of books, but, as you well know, you had long been buried by them, whelmed by their tangibility, the friction of skin, paper, and ink, as I suppose any would-be writer would be, said burial followed by a kind of resurrection, a transubstantiation, no, metempsychosis—Oh, wouldn’t Joyce be proud!—an emergence of some kind of monster, a walking library, death written all over its face, books and books and books falling after you into that wormhole you had burrowed; yes, twenty-five years since we’d discovered your so-called tunnel, had found your pages, pages which seem to anticipate today, reify those many disgruntled, no, enraged beings, that is, your disappointed people, who besides recalling Radiohead’s isolatos, those unfortunates “clinging onto bottles,” etc.—ah, but what do I know of such bands and songs, but a lot can happen and has happened in twenty-five years—anticipated the many millions maddened by the scorched-earth policies of this damnable government, many of whom—call them the “alt-wrong”—having sought some kind of salvation from a demagogue, that spraytanned flimflam man who recently pronounced “Thailand” “Thighland,” who had promised to “drain the swamp,” the promise a lie because he and his wicked necroliberal ilk are the bog, almost every sentence the miscreant utters a fog, no, smog, but don’t get me started on the whole boondoggle of both wings of the raptor claiming to represent the interests of the people; and there are your many recollections of our marriage, which don’t resemble what I remember of our “union,” but this is to be expected, marriage itself a fiction of sorts, or, rather, a shared illusion, which might serve some greater purpose, something that transcends Pink Floyd’s “two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, year after year,” but even in our best years you and I had been trying to fly an airplane while still building it, our marriage a parked car spinning its wheels and shrieking rubber into asphalt; so why, William Burrows, why did I find myself crying today, convulsing, my movements mirroring the trees outside my window walloped by the latest tropical storm’s gale-force winds, which later made me think of that famed Gale, Dorothy, the metaphor of her, she flight as flying, fleeing, and far-fetched fancy, me, lying on a hospital bed, tubes spigoting from my skin, me, speculative, bionic, the respirator to which I am attached silently chirring away, as the invisible invader havocs my body, the spreading inflammation compromising my lungs and liver, my kidneys, heart, and brain, the usual sedatives they were giving me to quell the violent coughing, to suppress the distress of the breathing tube, necessarily replaced by benzodiazepines, due to shortage of the abovementioned, which have drowsed me into intense and prolonged delirium, hence this tirade, this cascade of words and images and feelings and ideas—maybe they’re all ideas, all inferences and intimations, all kinds of forgetting—the whole of which might resemble some of the spam I’ve received in my inbox, like “What a material of un-ambiguity and preserveness of valuable knowledge about unexpected emotions,” like “some superb entropy,” such concoctions—what one writer calls “fragment[s] of aleatoric sub-poetry”—likely assembled by an algorithmic blender, all still firing my language synapses, fulgurously, this state I’m in, this limbo, of evolution and dissolution, where I’m melting and vaporizing and solidifying all at once, where I’m forgetting everything I ever thought I knew about time, the wondering about of which making me wonder about how long I’ve been here in this hospital, but definitely weeks, although it sometimes feels like it was only days ago when I was walking, bemasked and begloved, through a picturesque neighborhood, and encountering a street canopied by low hanging trees, a giant tree beyond splicing the mother-of-pearl moonlight shining through the shadowy overhanging into hundred scythes of light, the sight of which for a moment, an ever so momentary moment, making me feel happy, that feeling perhaps what it might actually mean to be “present,” an otherwise ultimately unapprehendable, and thus impossible, state, moon and stars and trees and clouds, and life and the death it temporarily obscures, the stuff of lyric poetry; and I don’t hate crows, not in the slightest, Double You Eff, I love them, my love for them once expressed in a yoga class, where I cawed while aloft in crow pose, blue jays, on the other wing, yes, I can’t stand them, just as I can’t stand swans, their beauty belying their malice; so yes, I love walks, have always loved them, especially “aimless” ones, far more than our intermittent trips to waterholes and movie houses before the rift to end all rifts, before we not only stopped touching each other and talking to each other but even looking at each other, and it was you who hated “public displays of affection,” as the phrase seemingly borrowed from a technical manual goes, you the cold one, but yes, yes, I eventually withdrew, fell into memories, the futile collecting of them like trying to sculpt a snowball one melting snowflake at a time, an impossibility, in other words; and wasn’t it just hours ago, when our son, Carl—we never had another, even though you claim we had, when, as you well know, Double You Eff, we had a daughter—Carl was here at my bedside, flowers in tow, the technicolor red of the petals a kind of wound, but to speak of our son is to speak of a man who’d followed your footsteps into academia, who for years had floated around all-but-dissertationed until he’d finally given up and then languished into the degrading precarity of adjuncting, a kind of voluntary slavery, where he is alternately laid off and on, while never getting laid, which is a whole other story, Carl now living in the selfsame area we lived in during the first years of our marriage, a one-time post-war slum whose prefab monstrosities have since been torn down only to be replaced by filing cabinet-like apartment complexes and filled by woebegone fellow-adjuncts, each one dancing in and out of underemployment, and, speaking of dancing, there are the coeds-cum-strippers, and then the cashiers, who accumulate more money in their till for the local economy-raping megastore in a day than they make in a month, and the don’t-got-it maids and the waiters depending on the generosity of their obese patrons, and there are the greasy spoon cooks, and the launderers, legal and illegal, and the home health aides doing all the work no one wants to do and getting paid next-to-nothing for it, not to mention the packaging and filling machine operators, the refuse and recyclable material collectors, and the cleaners employed by the seemingly innumerable car dealerships and automotive care shops, all of the above still working in the midst of the catastrophe, under adverse conditions, not to mention the glazed-eyed geekers and meth cookers you see zombieing in and out of the buildings, but this is profits-before-planet-and-people America, which is to say, America, as usual; and I, too, recall that first winter of our marriage, albeit differently; in any case, the gum tree is gone as is the Chinese elm, as is the sumac, mulberry, and sycamore or less, as are the daffodils, as are the wheatweed and black mustard, all of it replaced by blunt concrete blocks and mean strips of hot black asphalt; and it’s impossible to tell you how the world looks, not only because I’ve offset the meaning of the phrase, foregrounded that it is actually the world that looks at us, with either brusque disgust or silent indifference, my way of looking always from the “wrong” end of a telescope, hence my concern with the infinitesimal, with dot, bit, speck, crack, splinter, with human ovum and spermatozoa, with ameoba proteus and paramecium, with the parasitic bacterium Mycoplasma Genitalium, the “smallest organism capable of independent growth and reproduction,” with viruses, like the one ravaging my body, and with everything temporal, like shadows, as fleeting as feelings; and I was never ashamed of the sounds of our early environs, the creak of floorboard, the watery whispers from sink, shower, washer, toilet, the soporific hum of dryer, the radiator’s incessant clinking that infernal winter, the sounds of our neighbors embarrassing you, especially the sounds of their lovemaking, which brought me pleasure, albeit vicariously, the aural erotics of it often compelling me to thrust my fingers under my panties, past the wiry bush you disliked, toward the splendor of my wetness, me rubbing myself into something like oblivion, wishing you would lick me, lick my lips, the way you had claimed to but never actually did, but you did complain of the chicken livers we could barely afford, the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches you actually loved, but who doesn’t love this utterly brilliant combination, the perfect balance of sweet and savory, you chomping and swallowing all of the above with relish or without, but you said nothing about the many potatoes, their humble dusty architectonics belying not only their being a superfood, the alchemical, mineralogical wonder of zinc and iron, copper and calcium, phosphorus and potassium and magnesium—oh the mountains of them we ate throughout that winter—but their beauty, each of those marvelous things I’d boil in an iron pot, which I still have, which sits in my garden, full of dirt, a planter, in other words, from which grow, alternately, beans, beets, kale, mint, spinach, chard, chives, chili peppers, sweet peppers, lettuce, onions, radishes, tomatoes, and coriander; and how you lie, too, about how I would cry when I came, since I never orgasmed whenever you dared squirm your worm into me, your sad squirts like rotten albumen; and I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in years, probably ten, my sleep less the usual segmented than fragmented the past couple of months, the months of the contagion, though, nights finding me waking up every two hours or so, so maybe I’m slowly turning into a cat or bat or possum, Carl saying he’s lately been sleeping for longer and longer times, his dreams more vivid than usual, but I don’t remember my dreams, I never have remembered them, but I do wake up sometimes to memories, like one of our Sunday outings, where Sarah, our daughter—say her name, Double You Eff, this girl who has never spoken a word, who speaks through her art, the marvelous dioramas she makes, oh, how embarrassed you always were of her, hers another way of being, her lovely flapping and tapping, the stimming most people can’t read, a language all her own—had drawn a picture of a kite, which compelled us, compelled me to make us search store to store until we finally found one: a kite, its plastic sheath dusty and partially ripped but itself seemed to be in good condition, the tiger face on the sail quite lovely, actually, and later, after several botched attempts at flying it—what you might call a “kite-astrophe”—we discovered that the vertical spar had been broken all along—there were a few moments, though, where the wind was in our favor and we ran and ran and laughed and laughed as we fed the kite more string and somehow kept it aloft, and even you, standing apart from us, alternately snapping photos and shouting suggestions, laughed—the art of flying a kite is, among other things, ironically, the art of letting go, letting the wind play you as you play in and with it, while also being the art of interconnectedness—which reminded me of another of our drives, you at the wheel, of course, and we had fallen into one of our long silences, the sound, shape, movement, and velocity of our silence a science in itself, where I drifted off into sleep and woke to the shrill klaxon blast of an onrushing truck, you snapping awake, too, and swerving to the left, our car careering into the woods and smashing into a tree, the two of us springing out of the car, unscathed, yes, safe, yes, at least for the moment, and I should have left you then and there, walked out of the dark woods and onto the road and kept on walking, you as full of yourself as the orange harvest moon above our heads that night, since you had shown me who you were, what you were, a man always asleep at the wheel, the wheel of life, you the one who was fat and cold, the one who never wanted children, who were alternately baffled by and ashamed of them, you who project and misremember so much, like our sleeping patterns, your constant wheezing waking me up several times a night—you probably had what they call “obstructive sleep apnea,” and they have machines for that now—just like you misremember that it was me who had suggested various roleplaying scenarios to get us out of your sad-sack-in-the-sack rubbing of your hardened member against my leg until I let you enter me, pound on me a few minutes until you limply drizzled onto my belly; oh so many temporal bubbles to pop, so many lies, like the lie of your stuffing dirt into my “drawers,” into my Victorian armoires, dressers, chests, and breakfronts, into the washstand, china display cabinet, and roll-top secretary desk, the mahogany bookcase flanked by lion-carved pilasters supported by clawed-paw feet, the lie of my burying your book in dirt, a burial anticipated, nevertheless, of you, and you took part our house with you; and perhaps all your talk of dirt in your thinly plotted book is a purposeful foregrounding of plot as a small measured piece of land in a cemetery, and it was you not me who ended up resembling furniture, nothing hardened like the abovementioned Victorians but an anatomic chair, a massive flaccid fabric bag filled with polystyrene beans; and oh, yes, how much I enjoyed hearing the neighbors, their moans and grunts and shrieks, which seemed to go on for hours, their noises making me shudder with pleasure, my fingers ever so wet, while you wheezed away beside me; and no, I had no shame of my body, of my nakedness, especially not then, my voluptuous figure centerfold-worthy, and I was never fat, Double You Eff, as you claim over and over again, unlike you, of course, even when I was pregnant, and even now I marvel at it, my body, even my once-globular breasts that have deflated to leathery flaps, these breasts you often denigrate in your book, the breasts from which I fed both Carl and Sarah, and oh how jealous of them you had been, of Carl, especially, how you’d eye him with suspicion, with rage, and how I’d finally climbed on top of you, and kneaded my breasts like pastry bags, sprayed milk on your face, how disgusted you were at first, how pathetic your expression at my expression, but how you finally thrust forward with uncharacteristic passion, and sucked on my breasts, suckling pig you calling it “ambrosia” until you finally fell asleep; and what is life from root to bloom anyway but skin-thin memories magical-thinkingly muscling into stories, dramas that make us feel better about ourselves, make us believe our lives had meaning, had purpose, were interesting, life everlong nothing but a consuming of oneself piece by piece until there’s nothing but nothing left, our last word always “No.”

John Madera’s fiction may be found in ConjunctionsThe &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and elsewhere. His nonfiction may be found in American Book ReviewBookforum, Rain Taxi: Review of BooksThe Believer, and elsewhere. Recipient of an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University, Madera lives in New York City, where he edits Big Other and runs Rhizomatic: Publicity for Small Presses with Big Ideas.