Mark Wallace

D e a d       C a r n i v a l

Readme Online Chapbook #5

January 2001

Copyright 2001 by Mark Wallace. This is the fourth chapter of a novel-length prose work.


Four

Over the high ridge, Beatrice found herself able to see a small desert town in the distance near the next, lower ridge. She pulled over into a rough spot on the side of the road — how much pulling over have I done in the last two days, she laughed wearily — and looked across the barren valley at the town. Some stone houses had been built into the side of the ridge above the town and stared back at her square and gray. The town, almost nonexistent, lay below them, some minor mistake clamped on chunky ground that had no intention of being inhabited and barely seemed inhabited now, as if any moment the town would be gone for good. A few buildings paralleled the road for several hundred yards, a few others stretched only a little distance to either side of the road. At the far end of town, there was a thick, small clump of trees — a small oasis that had convinced somebody that living here was possible. A few other houses were scattered along the ridge beyond the town, and Beatrice pictured to herself their suspicious and decayed owners, living in hardly human conditions, inbred and feeble minded, or moved by tortured passions that could erupt without making a sound in the outside world that never would have tolerated them. But now you're fantasizing, she told herself, just when you most need to pay attention.

Other than the town, the valley in front of her, like so many others, held nothing but rocks and sand and a few twisted pieces of sharp, scraggly brush. Yet though this valley was indistinguishable from the others she had crossed since daylight, here the barrenness did not seem so much a result of the landscape as a cause, something that had existed before the landscape itself. To her rational mind it seemed silly — the earth was just that, earth, and had no intentional characteristics. A landscape was eerie only because a human mind could perceive it that way, in whatever complex relation to one's own fears and dreams. But to another part of her — some might have called it, erroneously, her "primitive" mind — she was aware that she was looking at cursed ground, that the valley that should not have been and the town that should not have been were sores that had opened on the earth. Now she knew why people went other ways, why stories were told about this town that were supported by no real facts, just by impressions that like a bad dream could not be shaken easily. There was nothing specific in the scene in front of her which could cause her sense that the valley and town were a pestilence that should be washed away, and yet that sense was there, cold and certain.

Leave, the voice inside her head was saying, leave now. This place is evil. You've come in search of a delusion. Go back and wait for death like everybody else.

But there was nothing to go back to. She knew that was the truth no matter what. If there was nothing here but death, that would have to do. Certainly there was nothing but death behind her. It was only by continuing that she could understand her dream about the carnival.

*

A reasonable argument could be made that people invent utopias because they need something to do with their time. What better way to entertain yourself at the laundromat, or while spending holidays with your relatives or in jail on trumped-up charges, than to imagine places where you wouldn't have to suffer through these things?

In fact, unless you're going to go so far as to write your utopias down (and, odd as it may sound, some people have done just that, though never very successfully), imagining other worlds in which your life would be perfect isn't difficult at all. You simply make things up on your own terms, and everybody else can get out if they don't like it. It's your utopia after all, and this stuff about compromise can go right out the window, unless of course compromise gives you that special thrill which nothing else can, in which case have it in your utopia by all means.

Writing utopias down is a different matter. Because then you're showing your utopia to other people, and guess what? Other people usually have problems with your utopia. For them it's flawed because the main thing about your utopia is that it's what you want, and while that may not be at complete odds with what they want, it's unlikely to match exactly.

Of course, the great utopians, aware of this difficulty, have usually tried to plan their utopias in such a way that they work for everybody. The great utopians had it in their heads that they were subtle enough to make what they wanted into something that everybody else wanted too. It's a stunningly ambitious idea, and doesn't work at all. People can be so ungrateful. Here you are, a great utopian trying to make a perfect world for everybody, and all other people do is complain, saying you left out this or that, or this or that isn't really fair, or what if I don't feel like sitting around in your god-damned perfect world even if it is perfect? It's enough to make you tear out your hair.

Of course, people who realize that creating a utopia isn't likely to happen can act awfully superior. Sir Thomas More was conscious of the fact that utopia meant no-place, these people will tell you, stopping for a moment with their martini held at just the right angle before blowing you off to talk to the head of whatever organization is throwing this stupid party. Obviously they have no time to waste on us poor dreamers.

So there's a bind. On the one hand it seems clear that utopia isn't going to happen. On the other hand it's distasteful to assume the world is going to suck for a lot of people while you're busy taking your piece of the action. The obvious compromise position, work to change what you can and accept what you can't, is literally one of those bumper stickers you can buy at roadside candy stores. Contradictions like these can seem insurmountable, and have led to a much more successful literary genre than utopias — dystopias. People have really gone to the races writing down everything that can go wrong and has — it's far more appealing and easier to agree with. There's not the same power issue either, because you're not telling anybody how to do things. So all in all, if you're going to work in this area, my recommendation would be to start writing dystopias — there's just so much more material.

On the other hand, I don't have any intention of giving up on utopias. The fact that achieving a utopia may be impossible seems the best reason I can think of to spend all your time imagining one. Think for a second about everything that wouldn't get done if we all spent our time lying around imagining perfect worlds. Wouldn't that be close to utopia in itself?

And, to tell the truth, because we can imagine utopias, they are real. Once you’ve thought of it, you’ve thought of it, and it’s real to that extent. Every imaginary perfect world you create exists, because in your imagination, you have created it. It may never happen, but that doesn't mean it's going away. The whole dichotomy between imagination and reality doesn't hold, since it's imagination that has created whatever reality we've got around here — which is one of the worst things that can be said about imagination, whose bad side people tend to ignore. So go ahead, imagine all the perfect worlds you want. Because finally, the fact that a person can imagine a perfect world says there's something beautiful about that person, no matter how shabby the perfect world would be if that person were really to establish it. It's only by imagining something better that people make what beauty they can. Put into action, it may fall short, but just because action is a poor contractor of dreams is no reason to hate the dreams themselves.

*

Hesitating on the hillside, voice in her head saying leave, leave, Beatrice realizes that, oddly, she can't now say when the dreams began. Certainly it was before the news that made those dreams imperative, but how long before? Not her whole life, that she's certain of, or thinks she's certain of, and all of a sudden is not certain of. Maybe they've been there from the beginning. ... But it was only recently they began to act on her seriously, after she was married, after her life seemed to be becoming something she had never expected. It was like the dreams had been waiting there, appearing every so often, until the time for her to choose became unavoidable. Because when she was younger, her life had always seemed to be about options and opportunities — will I do this? will I do that? had been the daydreams of many a relaxing afternoon. But at a later point, her life had seemed to harden, taking a shape that was more difficult to change, at the same time that its relation to any life she had imagined herself living had become more strained, and she had spent more and more time looking at herself thinking why is this me, what happened? Then the other dreams had begun, and what they had said to her — no, what she had decided they were saying to her — was that change was still possible, more momentous if more difficult, and the time to choose was now.

In feeling that pressure to choose so strongly, she had a sense that she was lucky. How many people pass a key moment of choice without even knowing it, she wondered. The time to become this or that person is suddenly staring at you and you feel it chill you, like the shadow of a distant and forgotten carnival, but you've got things to do and stuff on your mind and who has time to reflect on a nameless chill and you let it pass, and the newly created demon howling in the distance gets confused in your mind with the guy in the Corvette who keeps honking for no reason. That's it, that's all, over — the death of a universe with no one to mark its passing. And if that evening you feel a little more out of sorts, a little more like time is slipping away and you're not the person you hoped to be, a little more frustrated and tired and narrow, well, who isn't disappointed? Isn't facing that disappointment part of what it means to be an adult? Buck up, count the good things you have ...

Beatrice shivers. She still can't bring herself to descend into the valley, and she plays the dream over again in her mind, searching it for any last clue. It's not that sort of dream, she knows, it doesn't impart specific bits of information. But maybe there's something.

In the dream, she is first aware of static, as if from a radio station that won't quite come in. A voice slowly begins to rise above the static, imparting a inaudible message with great urgency. The more Beatrice strains to hear it, the more urgent the message becomes, but no matter how hard she strains, it remains inaudible. She becomes aware that she is looking at a deserted carnival, although the picture of it flickers. She sees the high roll of a Ferris wheel, the wild curves of a roller coaster, but they are abandoned and motionless. The old buildings are empty; some are missing roofs and parts of walls. A few rusting cars sit in the parking lot near the entrance to the carnival, a tall archway with a gate. The whole scene should be motionless, but slowly Beatrice becomes aware of activity stirring along the ground, and she thinks for a moment that the ground itself is moving, writhing. Then she sees that the ghost town is covered with prairie dogs, white prairie dogs, not the usual gray ones. They run across the carnival, jump in and out of the windows of buildings and cars, prop themselves up on the tops of buildings and cry out. The inaudible voice continues its desperate plea. Beatrice's view of the carnival begins to waver, as if she is looking through the lens of a unsteady camera. For an instant, a single prairie dog bumps against the lens, so close to Beatrice that she startles backwards, its paws scratching viciously and teeth bared before it jumps out of view. Is that a man moving somewhere? She thinks for a moment she sees someone, but then there's nothing. Then she becomes aware that, on the wall of one of the buildings, below a sign reading ERT CAFE, the first part of the first word missing, a mural is painted, a picture of a cowboy dressed in blue and sitting on a horse with legs rearing. Is the horse afraid of prairie dogs, she thinks.

Then in the doorway of the cafe she sees a man leaning, at too great a distance to make out his features with any clarity. He is beckoning to her. His clothes are oddly anachronistic; he seems to be in a tuxedo of some sort, with long tails — he has the aura of an elegant aristocrat. The inaudible voice becomes almost panicked — is it telling her to go to the man, or to avoid him? In the dream it's never clear, and Beatrice has come to believe the uncertainty is the point. The aristocrat looks far too much like a conventional figure of the devil really to be that — whoever he is, he's something far more subtle. She begins moving towards the man, aware that he has something important to tell her, or show her, so important in fact that all her life before now has been leading up to this. What he knows will change everything, save or destroy her. Already it has made her waking world meaningless ...

It's at this point that she wakes up, or the dream breaks off in some other way. Recently, she always wakes up, looks around her and becomes aware that the life she's leading can no longer go on as it has. With each new occurrence of the dream, it's a feeling that becomes stronger and stronger. So much so, in fact, that by the time she heard the news, she was already on the verge of going.

*

Here's the time to imagine your utopia. Shut your eyes, let your body loose and your mind drift.

What does your perfect world look like?

If you can't picture it, try again. Try as if your life depended on it.

*

In that country, these are legal forms of torture:

"An average student gets an average grade, and an average grade is a C. What makes you think you can do things this way? You can't, you're doing it all wrong. You're never going to be good at this. You have to be smart to do this, and you have to work hard, and you're pretty much a stupid lazy son-of-a-bitch, aren't you?"

"Our organization is based on a non-hierarchical model, because hierarchies are patriarchal structures we are determined to undermine. We are against all forms of discrimination, and everyone in the organization has an equal say. We are committed to diversity, and make every effort to see that our population is absolutely representative of the diversity of American life, with special attention to under-represented populations. With us, everybody has a place, and everyone is given equal authority in a non-competitive framework where people can speak their minds. We are an open, loving community of gentle but committed individuals. If you are seeking a more caring, nurturing environment, send away today, at only a small fee, for our booklet on how to join."

"The self-worth of men is dependant on how many women they can have. The self-worth of women is dependant on keeping a single lifetime partner. Men tend to be aggressive and goal-oriented, women to be passive and nurturing. Men have difficulty talking about their feelings, women feel great insecurity when it comes to speaking about intellectual matters. Men tend to focus their sexuality on the desire for orgasm, women like more touching and holding. Men tend to be cruel to women, women tend to feel stuck in bad relationships. Men tend to get their sense of self from the work they do, women from their involvements with others. These are just some of the jewels of wisdom you will find in Dr. Randolph Randolph's new book, Why Men and Women Are Different But Can Love Each Other Anyway, now on sale for only $24.95 at your local bookstore."

Two people who have a great deal to say to each other, but are afraid to say it, are locked in a room together by official decree for one year. After a few minutes of embarrassed silence, they start to talk about insignificant matters, growing warmer and more friendly but avoiding essential subjects. Each of them feels, on the one hand, that talking is good; it's helping them understand each other. On the other hand, the subjects that remain unspoken begin to grow between them like a barrier that becomes harder and harder to cross, something that causes each of them endless silent anxiety. After awhile the barrier becomes insurmountable — they each feel that speaking the unspoken would emotionally destroy them. In fact, although the barrier has become intolerable, it's also the primary thing they share with each other, since their actual conversation has become more and more desultory and sooner or later is obviously pointless. At a certain point each of them begins to base their entire involvement with the other on the things not said, and soon it seems that the barrier, though it is destroying them, is that absence through which they know who they are, and without it they would die.

*

At my New England estate, advances were slow. I could raise the dead briefly — a moving arm, a twitching leg, in one case eyes that opened and seemed to see. But manifestations rarely lasted more than several seconds, and none more than a minute. The essential breakthrough had been made — life could be returned to human forms kept in the proper state of suspension — but my successes remained laboratory novelties, cancer cured in rats while the population remained ravaged. What I wanted was to pierce the veil of death, discover it to be just another boundary that the human mind could be rid of, as the Wright Brothers had discovered flight and Neil Armstrong had set foot on the moon. What I wanted was to change the world. But all I had done was to temporarily re-animate a few body parts that were soon as stiff and cold as they had been a moment before.

At a certain point my despair became wild, uncontrollable. It had become unclear to me whether the dying indigents, and the recently dead I took from their graves soon enough for their bodies still to be in the condition proper for reanimation, were all necessary for my work, or whether I was taking pleasure in obtaining bodies because of my frustration that I could not make them live again. I was fully aware how easily, in the name of higher pursuits, great tasks such as mine could become mere horror shows.

One night, looking out at the darkness where winter snows lay piled, I suddenly realized my whole project might have been mistaken from its inception. Maybe I was going about it all wrong. Maybe I was not Einstein but one of the many who had failed to be like him. Yet all my formulas were correct, and my technology so refined, despite certain limitations on my resources, that most of the "experts" who I had worked with during the government experiments of the fifties would have been, in the face of my knowledge, little more than motionless zombies themselves. I began to see then the fine line between great success and the numbing pits of failure, I began to see, even, that success and failure were not in fact opposites. What are the finest successes of art, science, technology, human thinking in all its forms, other than the record of the failures by which, and only by which, they can be known as successes? Maybe the very desire for success was born in feelings of failure. Haven't most successes been fueled by despair, self-loathing, man's endless hatred of the limits the universe seems to impose on his ability to be all powerful? Is not the life of even the greatest artist composed primarily of terrible frustration, punctuated by instants of grand glory that only the ignorant take as all the truth there is?

And if that was true, then maybe, without being aware of it, my assumptions about life and death had been based on a similarly faulty opposition. I had seen life as success, death as failure. I had based my experiments on the notion that death was to be overcome. But was not death, in fact, the fertile ground which made life possible? My experiments had been based on achieving life by rejecting death, when maybe what I had needed to do was accept death, embrace it. Maybe in order to create life, one had to be death.

Experimentally, it was a long shot, but theoretically I realized it was possible — certainly I could fail no more than I already had. It would take a totally different approach, not starting from scratch thankfully, but calling for alterations even in my most fundamental processes. But it could be done! After months of only sporadic work, I hurried to my laboratory, fevered to create the world I had always imagined I could.

*

Then comes the peaceful part.

— Peaceful part? Tell me about that.

I don't know how the scene shifts. One moment I'm strapped down, in terror of the experiments they are going to continue performing on me. The next I'm lying in a soft bed where everything is white, not only the bed but the walls. At first I'm alone, and a great calm spreads through me, a feeling of belonging. This is where I should be.

— Should be?

Yes. I'm home. I don't know how else to say it.

— But you have a family. Aren't they your home?

Well yes, of course. But when I'm in that room my family seems my home only in a temporary way — life is always changing. I feel like this room where I'm lying is always going to be there, and even when I'm returned it will be in my mind. Of course once I do leave it's different, but at the time ...

— Does anything happen to you in this room? Or do you just lie there?

Sooner or later they come to me.

— They "come to you." What do they do?

They come into the room, make a circle around me quietly, and then begin to send me messages.

— What sort of messages?

Of peace and well-being, of harmony. It's a message they want me to bring back to everyone.

— And do you?

No, not really. I wish I could say I did.

— So at that point their relation to you has changed. They're no longer violent or malevolent.

Malevolent?

— Evil.

No, at that point they're not evil.

— How do you explain the switch?

I'm not sure I can. It's one of the weirdest parts of the whole thing.

— But when it's happening, you just accept it? They've been evil, and now they're not, and it causes no problems for you?

Strange, isn't it?

— And you're entirely at peace while you're sitting there and they're sending you messages?

Yes.

— How do they send you the messages? Are they talking to you?

No. They're not saying anything, but I can hear the messages in my head.

— In your head. How?

They communicate telepathically or something.

— Are they communicating with you all the time? I mean, are they communicating with you now?

I like to feel that in a certain way, they are.

— But they're not actually communicating with you at this moment?

No. But the messages are still with me.

— And you believe in the messages?

I wish I did. But I don't know, I'm not sure. I know that when I'm in that room, I believe them.

— Do you ever suspect that they're trying to trick you? You know, that they give you this peaceful feeling at the end so you can forget all the negative feelings you've had up to that point?

I never thought about that until now. I guess it's possible.

— Possible? But you're not sure.

Like I said, I never thought about it before. They're certainly capable of it, I know that — even at the end I'm always in their power. It's just that by the end I've come to like it, to need it. So what you’re describing wouldn’t make it any less a paradise.

— Why not?

I don't know. I guess it's because I'm not fighting their control any more. It's like when I let them do what they want, which I can't stop them from doing anyway, something changes. I don't need to fight for control because I can't have it, and while I'm in the white room everything about it seems fine, perfect, beautiful. Like I said, it's paradise.

— But how do you feel about it now, sitting here?

I'm not sure. I'm really not sure.

*

Routines:

Amelia: The day is like a well-drawn curve in a language I don't understand, mysterious and beautiful, hinting at the richness of the unknown.

Sebastian: I have gas. No more pizza for lunch, you can bet.

Thomasina: I'm in love with aimlessness, my whims are thousands of roads on a clear fall day.

Reginald: I tower over myself, in secret rooms I chant obscure mantras to the reigning demons of the impossible!

[A loud bell is rung several times; each time it is rung, the four people contort their bodies and faces as they please.]

Amelia: Yet sometimes lostness plagues me, I become a puppy separated from its loving master, could you pass the tea?

Sebastian: I've been a truck driver, a milkman, an exotic dancer, a politician in the most difficult Irish urban wards, once I worked in a library and stamped the name of the library on ten thousand bookmarks.

Thomasina: This hot weather makes me want to get naked.

Reginald: I'm in love with taxes, with envelopes, with traffic jams, with passive aggressive people who never speak up, with lawyers for the rich and famous who destroy the very concept of evidence. Who will dare question my standards of beauty?

[At this point, several people in black masks bring a balance beam onto the stage. All four characters rub themselves against it in suggestive manners.]

Amelia: I'm at war with phallic control.

Sebastian: Sometimes, I believe that if I think hard enough, the world as I know it will go away. And it always does!

Thomasina: Why do they give me the understated parts? Yet I know three is a magic number.

Reginald: Do you think you can pull my beard and I'll call it pastime? Let it come down. I am the wounded plagiarist on a field textual, centuries of my aristocratic race have been lazy good-for-nothing mother fuckers.

[Is there supposed to be a stage direction here? Do what you want; don't even think it matters to me.]

Amelia: What is that nameless anxiety that stalks my distance, stakes itself in my ambivalence, ties me like a sister to all I most loathe? It's noon and I'm hungry.

Sebastian: It's noon, but I already said I don't want pizza.

Thomasina: How can you say it's noon when it's midnight?

Reginald: My watch is broken and I've got nothing to do.

[Imagine yourself on this stage, able to do anything you want for as long as you want.]

Amelia: Oddly, after she'd sniffed the contaminants, her mind became remarkably clear, and she severed ties with everybody she knew, realizing their duplicitous plans were intended to cause her destruction.

Sebastian: I would have done anything for him. After I murdered him, I had him embalmed, and now his wonderful form graces my mantelpiece until time itself comes to a stop.

Thomasina: Fine, don't do it. I guess you never cared about me.

Reginald: By definition, all the publications on the current market were devoted to obscuring any real analysis of the nation's actual power dynamic, preferring to cast all debates and problems into issues between individuals, or stories of individual initiative or its lack. People were to blame, or to thank, but the power mechanisms that forced people into postures of visibility which relentlessly guided their choices were simply assumed not to exist. The result was that the landscape appeared to be populated by numbers of discrete individuals whose interactions formed the fabric of modern society. But the fact that rules, regulations, and a huge variety of social propaganda greatly controlled choices of how to operate within a distortedly restricted field was something mentioned only by a few dissidents who, the moment they mentioned this dubious power structure, were unlikely ever to appear in public debate. That certain people did certain things over and over was attributed to their supposedly real desires to do those things, not to the highly effective elimination of other options.

[At this point all four characters throw up their hands and weep loudly, aware that there is no reason to continue.]

Amelia: Let the screams at my mutilation haunt the ears of the dead forever.

Sebastian: I think I have a terminal disease.

Thomasina: Is it the pain of others, or the fact that I have to live among them always that makes me cry so constantly it's as if the ground will crumble?

Reginald: I will accept no limitation on my desire to indulge these forbidden pleasures. I will pour scalding oil in the open wounds of the universe and laugh.

[All objects are cleared from the stage. The four characters, keeping a significant distance from each other, sit on the floor. All the lights go off except for a single low spotlight on the face of each of the four.]

Amelia: I have never sought to be royalty, to rule my own desires like a queen. I am willing to have nothing, to labor, to deny myself, to dedicate my silence to obscure humiliations. I am willing to be rich, to have goodness surround me like light, to love as much as I am loved, to let the land open out before me like a thousand stories of possibility. My imagination is all I have, and in its fields and caverns I am determined to make what life I can, though the kings of all the universes demand that my fertility be slashed and burned. I am the humble watchman of the single blade of grass that survives the destruction of the field.

Sebastian: Just when it's time for me to become eloquent, I get sick as a dog again. Is this the way to Albuquerque?

Thomasina: The joys I have taken include many you have never thought of. Come with me into my tent.

Reginald: Perhaps there will be more of this masquerade.

*

The carriage has stopped by the side of the rocky path.

"Father, there's no time," his son says, voice adamant, desperate. But already the old man has stepped out of the carriage, holding his cane shakily. One remembers too much, he thinks, until finally the meaning of what one remembers will never have time to be realized. It happened, what more could there be to say, it happened and it has become a life.

"What's he doing now?" the son's wife says angrily.

"Father, please."

Storm clouds are heavy in the sky, thick bunches of darkness that roll themselves across the hills and fields. But storm clouds bring rain, and it has not rained for months. The old man moves towards the edge of the hill slowly, one faltering step at a time, his eyes pierced by the sunlight that peeks between a break in the clouds.

He can see the figures again, more certainly this time. In their absence, they bring with them everything else that does not exist. Arms and legs and faces of no certain substance, small one moment, stretched for hundreds of yards the next, they do not belong in this landscape or any other, they are neither earthly or alien. Their eyes and mouths contort wildly, grimaces of appalling pleasure or remembered pain. The question is not, the old man knows, what they mean or even what they are. In fact they are not a question any more than they are an answer. Their non-existence is a language without restraint, and as such an impossibility — they are not, he knows, a language.

"Father, if we don't go now, we'll all be dead," his son pleads, voice urgent but distant.

"I'm not going any farther," the old man says, first to himself, and then again, turning to his son, his voice cracked in the wind. "There's nowhere for me to go."

"Father," his son leaps down from the carriage. "Please get back in now."

"No."

"Are you going to make me pick you up and carry you?"

The old man shakes his head sadly. "No. I‘ll do what you say. But I ask you to leave me here."

"But you'll die."

"Of course. That's what I want."

"We're less than a day away. Then we'll have our lives back again. Who knows — you could live for another twenty years."

"Does that seem to you a great reward?"

"We don't have time to be philosophical, father. Now hurry." The son starts to move the old man back to the carriage.

"I did not want to be philosophical," the old man said, stepping back into the carriage. "I wanted to die."

*

William Faulkner once said he started The Sound and the Fury with an image in his head of a little girl's muddy drawers. I've been trying to write this book because of a painting by El Greco called "The Storm Over Toledo" which I once owned in a cheap print, and because of the image in my mind of a pair of shoes sitting on a table.

I don't know where I lost the print, and I never had the shoes.

It's images like these, insignificant things that no one who cared only about worldly responsibility could have time for, that make all discussions about the meaning and significance of art misleading, another hierarchical torture by which people receive credentials to help them secure their economic safety. Art is social and cultural, it's autobiographical, it has a history, this is stuff you hear all the time, it sounds important and is sometimes even true despite the intentions of those who say it. But if somebody starts talking about shoes, or cheap prints, or how they've fiddled away their time while Rome burns, see how fast you clear the room of people who want to talk about the meaning of art, which they had heard was something important.

It's why art is so rightly despised by serious, responsible people — it doesn't care whether anybody thinks it's important or not, it can't be counted on in time of battle. Start thinking art is your friend, that you own it or have anything in common with it, and see how fast it burns you. It will burn you no matter who you are — like the universe, it doesn't care what happens to you. If you want to be important, or safe, go to med school. Sure, art may save you. But it's just as likely to ruin your life.

What El Greco's painting showed me was a new method of writing fiction, in which every part was like a storm over Toledo, full of its own movement, separate from other storms but connected too, and always aware how quickly the sky could fall. This book is my failure to put that new method into practice.

But I've never known what to do with the shoes. The image of them won't even be in this book — I can talk about them, I can imagine other shoes, but I can't make you see these shoes, any more than I can make them go away. I've become a strange person to spend time with — I can't always connect with things going on around me because I'm thinking about these ridiculous shoes that simply aren't going to appear, ever.

I want to say so much about the shoes and the table they're sitting on, I want to tell stories about them like Scherezade's thousand tales. I'm not sure I can. Do you think you can see the shoes now, are you imagining a pair of shoes sitting on a table? You can be certain that what you're seeing are not the shoes I'm talking about, since I can't even see them and they're in my head. I can't see them, though every word in this book is trying to be about them. Maybe that's what this book is, a thousand ways to write about a pair of shoes that will not appear. A thousand ways I cannot write about a pair of shoes that are not here.

One would be pretty hard put to build an institution on the basis of that. Of course, that won't stop anybody from doing it, if they want.

But until many more people understand that art makes it possible to find Utopia in a pair of shoes that don't exist, and that spending a lot of time dreaming about those shoes, trying to discover what they are, may be a thoroughly important thing to do, then everything, art included, is going to continue to be an excuse for people to try to keep owning meaning like they're buying a pair of shoes.

*

Beatrice drove into town, hers the only car on the road except for a pickup that passed her going in the other direction, the faces of three men shoved oddly close to the window, too round somehow, all of them, staring at her, what was she doing here, far too good a question, yes. Where to stop, where to begin? This close, the town was just as harsh, forbidding, desolate, the buildings beaten and weary under the overwhelming sun. Then a sign, plastic and glass, TOM'S PLACE, and next to it DESERT MUSEUM painted on a piece of board, other pieces of board around it with similarly amateur print, SEE THE STRANGE DESERT CREATURES FOUND NO WHERE ELSE, NOTHING LIKE IT THIS SIDE OF THE MISSIPPI, the misspelling of the state sadly ridiculous. But TOM'S PLACE was a store, and maybe the owner would know if anyone in town would have a room to put her up.

She stopped the car on the dead quiet street. The sound of the engine, cut off, hovering as a memory of sound, was most of what there was to hear, other than a strange bird call from somewhere, a slight whoosh of wind through the few trees. Across the street, several buildings down, a man came out the door and leaned against it, staring. Beatrice found herself wondering if there were any women in the town at all, though of course there had to be, didn't there? Then, against the silence, a large dog howled, certainly from inside some nearby building because of the muffled echo, mournful, loneliness and pain beyond solace.

Inside the store, the man behind the counter said "Ma’am," polite and uninterested, his face dark with several days growth of hair not yet a beard, and then turned back to fiddle with goods behind the shelves. An ordinary small town store, somewhat overfilled as if all the shelves might come crashing down. Everything a little dusty, dust brightly swirling in the sun coming through the windows.

She went to the counter. "Are you Tom?" she said to the man who turned back to look at her only after she spoke, an odd question really and he laughed, looking away, not embarrassed but slightly superior, stupid city woman question Beatrice guessed.

"No ma’am," he said. "Tom pretty much likes to stay back at the museum these days."

"Oh," she said, disconcerted — thinking she knew the man's name had been a comfort, a buffer between her and something. "Well maybe you can help me. I ... I need a place to stay for a few days." She started to make up a reason why, but stopped — what reason could there possibly be?

"Maggie Walsh has already got a place set for you at her boarding house," the man said. "I think she expected you a day or two ago."

"Expected me?" Beatrice startled, no time even to be comforted by the fact it was a woman's name. "No, no one is expecting me, that's not possible."

The man's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You're not the woman who called last week?"

"No," Beatrice said, confused; had she called, what had she done or not done, why was it hard to remember? "I mean, I don't think so, no, I didn't call."

"Whatever you say, ma’am," a thin veneer of politeness over obvious disbelief. "There's always plenty of room at Maggie Walsh's."

"That's great," Beatrice said. But the words had no meaning even in her own head, thinking are they expecting me and then who, is who expecting me? "Can you tell me how to get there?"

"Take the road that goes straight to hell," the man said. "About five hundred yards west of here, then a left."

"What?" Maggie said.

"The road to Hell Mountain. Maggie's is a little way past the edge of town."

"Oh," Beatrice said. "I must have just passed it."

"If that's the way you came," the man said. Was there something cryptic in his tone?

"And you're sure she'll have a room?"

"Always plenty of room at Maggie Walsh's."

"Thank you very much."

"You're welcome, ma’am. When you're settled, you'll have to come back and see Tom, and the museum. There's some pretty wild stuff back there."

"What sort of stuff?"

"Stuff you've never seen before," the man said.

*

Wait.

I won't.

You thought the worst part was over.

No. I know it's just beginning.

When they removed my sexual organs, I began to feel something was wrong. I began to think, what's happening to me?

I remember they put my eyes in a cup of water and let them stare back at me. For the first time in my life, I could see myself.

I wanted to kill you, to watch you die slowly. I wanted you to suffer everything I had suffered. It would have been paradise.

Yet here we are, disembodied demons of the bland technological night, the whole world splayed out before us, and all we can do is list our indignities like old men discussing their trips to the hospital.

Wait. Listen. I need you to listen.

There's nothing to hear. Nothing.

I had such dreams, and I sold them so cheaply — for cheap shocks, cheap thrills, cheap misunderstandings that let me hate myself in the way I had always been determined to. I thought blood was suffering, love was hatred, pain was pleasure. All I wanted to do was hurt as many people as I could, for as long as possible. I became a hybrid — one that took the worst part of every world.

Strange, isn't it, that paradise is the one thing we could never tolerate.

I was determined to surround myself with everything I most despised, in order to prove I knew who I was.

The hill of dreams is watched by the eyes of time. Even if they're mine and in a cup.

Once you go into the hills, is there no way out? No escape from degradation?

Yet what other way could you have gone, except into them? My brain is a mine field where children play with heaven.

The bodies. They're piling up and starting to move.

Sooner or later, it was bound to happen. After all, why should they be different?

I want possibility. But all I have is myself, and my desperate fear of others. And my fear of what I can do, what I can say. Tell me, dark lord, why am I afraid to open my mouth? Is it because I suspect you live there?

I don't know who you're talking to. There's no one here but me, no one to hear but me.

There's only you, and only me?

Yes. For now. Maybe forever.

Then tell me, who are these demons? Where did they come from? My past? Other people? Histories? Other worlds? Other universes? I need to know.

Yes. You need to know.

That's no answer.

No. It isn't.

[Back to Readme]