Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: June, 2012

Light, Time, and Gravity (VI)

by rsbakker

When you hang in the high gloom, everything is illuminated from below.

18

(1996)

Truth is just theory with a handgun.

Sometimes it’s the universe that shoots you. Sometimes it’s the theorist (or more embarrassing yet, a fucking disciple).

I had learned my lesson. By this time I was keeping two books, one to show my in-group authorities, the other to pursue my own crackpot inclinations. I had gradually adopted a thoroughly sociopathic stance toward my academic career, submitting everything to ad hoc analyses of cost and benefit. I read the ‘names’ I needed to read to play and win the game–I even pretended to believe. I jumped on the Frankfurt bandwagon, began smoking Adorno, Marcuse, and poor, plodding Habermas. I started trashing Derrida every chance I could: deconstruction, I began complaining, was nothing but negative dialectics starved into an empty formalism.

I scaled back my dissertation: instead of offering something new as my theoretical tertium quid, I decided to offer something old, or I should say, someone: Herman Melville. I adopted a kind of revenge motif: rather than use contemporary theory to interpret Melville, I would use Melville to interpret contemporary theory. Of course I never mentioned this inversion outright, figuring that my committee members would be impressed the degree to which they owned this observation…

“Simply brilliant,” one of them remarked.

“Thank you,” was my faux-surprised, aw-shucks reply. “But I’m not… quite… sure…”

“This… this… inversion of the interpretative relation between theory and narrativ–”

“Yes!” another chimed in. “I was thinking the same thing. It completely reverses the typical power relation: usually narrative occupies the object position… But what you’re do–”

Subject position.”

“Excuse me?”

“You mean subject position. Usually narrative occu–”

“No-no. That’s not what I mea–”

“Interesting implications for gender as well, I think, anyway.”

That pretty much sealed the deal, even though philosophically speaking, the project was a total mess. It was interesting enough, I suppose, to interpret Derrida’s metaphysics of presence as the white whale, or to use Bartleby to theorize the problematic relation between representation and repetition in Freud, but I could never shake the feeling of institutional coercion–even betrayal. Compared to my prior project, this was little more than a gimmick, a skate-board stunt. So of course they were falling over themselves to own it.

“All I’m trying to do,” I said, “is to place theoretical and narrative cognition on the same obstacle course, and see, not so much who wins the race–because I think they have different finish lines–but how they fare when confronted with similar obstructions.”

‘Cognitive’ was a word that I had begun using with more and more frequency over the preceding months. I had never forgotten that argument with the nihilist, even though I had yet to take any of his questions to heart. Instead, I did what most all of us do when we find our beliefs genuinely threatened: I reinterpreted the threat into something I could use to theoretically intimidate others. (I say genuinely threatened because of the well-known (in cognitive psychological circles, at least) phenomena of belief polarization).

‘Cognitive’ pricked quite a few ears, hearkening as it did to an alien and largely antagonistic theoretical tradition: the much-maligned and even more feared Analytic Philosophy. I may have looked like I belonged, but that word… All I need do is speak it, and a good number of my interlocutors would begin speaking in slow motion, parsing their replies with almost ludicrous care. Every one knows you need to be secretive around someone with secrets.

For all they knew, I could be a dreaded Quinean.

20

(Indeterminate)

Harvest was harvest. Periodically the guys would joke about picking cancer, but no one took this seriously. They picked their leaves and smoked their cigarettes and ignored the long transformative chain between. The thing about vast industrial articulations is that they’re too big to be seen, and what can’t be seen can’t be blamed, let alone held accountable.

Shrug your shoulders. Light another smoke.

People live in Middle-earth, both in Tolkien’s and in Dawkin’s sense. Too big to see microbes, let alone sub-atomic particles. Too ephemeral to see evolution or plate tectonics. Too small to see climate, let alone crashing galaxies. Too long-lived to see quantum or relativistic effects. We dwell among fractions, which we confuse for whole numbers. Our history becomes the whole of history, the fossil record be damned. Our truth becomes the only truth, the nay-sayers be damned. Our awareness [4] becomes the whole of existence, the inconsistencies forgotten, or even worse, fetishized.

Psychology becomes cosmology. Magic crawls into the space between the leaf and the cigarette.

We call it God, not because we hate hanging in the dark, but because people fence our every other horizon. Why not the big one as well?

[4] It is the misapprehension called consciousness.

21

(1984)

Dylan saw the crew in the morning, and then saw them again during clean-up at the end of the day, but disgust and exhaustion typically made these silent, staring-off-into-the-distance affairs. Lunch was his only window on what was happening in the fields. He found himself wary of Cutter, as though part of him understood the circumstantial nature of his friendships. He found himself curious as well: he had ascribed too many envied attributes to Cutter not to wonder how the man would fair in complicated social situations.

The shark-smiling man flourished–no surprise there. At lunch, Kyle would return with the pickup and the boat loaded with the others, skin and clothes blackened, looking for all the world like a band of Guatemalan insurgents. If the morning had been really wet, a couple of them would still be wearing their rain pants. All of them except Gilles sported grimy caps. They would all file into the bunkhouse, the long room on the side of the main barn where Jerry had installed all their beds. Some prior conversation would be rekindled the instant they pulled up to the table with their beers. No matter what the subject matter was, Cutter would always occupy one of the discussion’s poles, cracking jokes or firing questions. He had this way of orchestrating conversations so as to include those who might otherwise remain stranded at the perimeter.

Dylan’s fear was that he would be deemed “one of the girls” simply because he was stuck with them all day. That first lunch break he hunkered down alone on the sunny side of the kiln’s foundation, not wanting to hang with the chicks, and assuming he would be forgotten by the others. It’s actually an intoxicating feeling, the assumption of social exclusion–as opposed to the fact of it. Just you, the bugs, and the ticking silence of cooling machinery. Dylan appreciated solitude the way asthmatic runners appreciated breathers–as an honest reprieve from his aspirations. His legs kicked out, he sat, chewing on his peanut butter and banana sandwich, washing it down with a crisp can of Coke, gazing at things near and far. He soaked in his loneliness as if it were a tub of cool water.

“Weirdsma!”

Sure enough, Cutter appeared around the corner looking at him with pained mirth. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Eating lunch.”

The man held out a one-grammer of oil between gum-stained fingers. “This is lunch, my friend. C’mon.”

And like that, Dylan became one of the druggie-drinking crew.

Perhaps this wasn’t so much of a shock, given that he was a ready-made confederate of Cutter’s, someone the man trusted to have in his corner. The surprise was the way Cutter went out of his way to carve out a place of privilege for Dylan.

All the man had to do was mention Missy, and the comments and questions came piling in. He became the excuse, the occasion. Of course, they would have had these conversations without him, but the fact that Dylan glimpsed Missy every time he grabbed another stick from the elevator leant their imaginings–how they would fuck her this way and that–a daring near-reality. The combination of Cutter, Missy, and his obvious wit instantly cemented his position as “one of us.”

After that first lunch he could count on smiles and jokes from almost everyone on the farm. The reasons mattered not at all.

22

(Inapplicable)

Language is the most violent and miraculous form of memory. With each word our past is hacked into fragments, then welded into new forms, new angles, new lines on the Absolute.

With language we can take what happened to us and manufacture memories for the world.

Good and bad.

23

(1984)

The ‘bunkhouse’ smelled of dust, wood, and ripe socks. It was a long low room attached to the equipment barn. After the last of the autumn chores were completed and winter began to close in, tobacco farmers would begin “stripping,” a process where they removed all the cured tobacco from the sticks, sifted through leaves according to varying grades of quality, then compressed the sorted product into bales that would then be brought to market for auction. The bunkhouse was simply the stripping room made habitable: three bunks set against opposing walls, a long counter with two hotplates, and a huge table set in the centre. Aside from the mat at the entrance, only a lime-green rug covered the bare cement floor. Tittie, hair-band, and gear-pig posters adorned the chip-board walls. Beaten suitcases and rucksacks had been heaped against the foot and head of the bunks. Everywhere you looked you saw empty beer bottles: lots of Canadian and Fifty, interspersed with the odd Labatt’s Crystal–the brand Buke was always pitching to the others. Since there was an even split between the Player’s Light and DuMaurier smokers, the ashtrays were always packed with white and orange filters.

With Dylan in tow, Cutter waltzed in while explaining the provenance of his one-grammer: in those days spinning stories about your drugs was the small-talk mode of choice. Only three of the others, Thierry, Kyle, and Long Tom, were already sitting, sucking on frosty bottles of beer. The others were still cleaning up. “Hey, boys,” Cutter said negligently as he pulled out a chair. “You remember Weirdsma here…”

As innocuous as this moment might seem, Dylan actually learned a lesson he would hold tight for the rest of his days: When it comes to people, act as if, and it will be.

The two Indians simply nodded, smiling. Thierry reached out to shake his hand, grinning at him the way you might grin at a stupid dog or a mental retard. “‘ello,” he said, his grip veiny and strong. At that moment Gilles strode from the small bathroom trailing a cloud of soap-smelling steam, drawing a comb through his wet hair.

“Whaddafuck, man. I need a toke.”

“You shower?” Cutter cried.

Thierry jerked his head up and down in a silent hee-hee. “Alweeez!”

“See?” Kyle said, a wary kind of humour on his face. “I told you he spoke English.”

Thierry turned to him. “Alweez!” he cried nodding. “Alweez showur, dat fucking guy.”

Gilles snapped something at him in French–there was something at once mercurial and effeminate about his temper. Thierry simply smiled at him like he was crazy, turned to the others and laughed. “Fucking crazeee! Dat guy…”

“Toke!” Gilles shouted, pulling a chair close to the table.

While they tried to figure out which of the empty beers was the bottle-toker, the screen-door swung wide and crashed behind them. Buke and Jerry sauntered in, jawing on about dump-trucks bigger than houses. Everyone at the table fell silent. Dylan saw Kyle glance at the one-grammar standing like a bullet on the table, then shoot Cutter a look of warning. Cutter simply grinned and shook his head.

“First toke for the boss man?” he called to Jerry over his shoulder.

Their talk took on that careful, boss-is-listening tone that Dylan would hear and use so often over the rest of his life. Jerry peppered them with several just-asking questions: Was the boat truck starting reliably, Kyle? Did Thierry understand that he needed to take at least three leaves, eh, Gilles? Twoi. Dylan, meanwhile, watched Cutter steer Jerry his bottle-toke. The glob he pulled was so big it almost put out his cigarette. He dipped the heater in the small hole at the bottom of the bottle, which almost instantly turned grey.

“That’ll be kife,” Dylan warned him in a murmur.

Cutter simply blinked at him in the course of saying, to no one in particular, “Looks like we’re kicking some ass in Los Angeles…”

This triggered the inevitable debate about whether this Olympics was more or less “real” because of the commie boycott.

Cutter nonchalantly handed a smiling, still standing Jerry the bottle in the midst of the controversy. The voices may have continued their previous trajectories, but for a split second, all eyes clicked to the big man. He had no choice but to inhale “with authority,” as the saying went. He sucked the Now white bottle clear with single quick breath, then began hacking like a drowning victim.

“Owich!” Cutter cried. “Sorry about that, Jerr.” He glanced at Dylan, wagged his eyes at heaven. The rest of the crew laughed in the tippytoe way of children laughing at an abusive father.

Cruelty flickered from voice to voice. Cruelty and celebration.

24

(1984)

Jerry persisted for about a week before giving up. Conspicuous for being clean, he would stand with his beer rather than sit, glancing at his watch every-time he took a drink. After a half-an-hour would pass he would say something like, “Okay, boyzzz! We’re burning daylight, here…”

This was what was called ‘pulling a heavy,’ the phrase everyone used to denote the exercise of social authority–or pretty much any comment that popped the good times balloon. Given his sensibilities, Dylan found these moments almost unbearable, primarily because of the farcical way Jerry struggled to make his heavies sound light. His just-another-guy-joking tone. His bouncing yah-yah gaze.

The crew would drag their asses from the table… eventually. It was the “whatever” character of this ‘eventually’ that pinned and needled Dylan the most, the collective insinuation buried within it. There was no point to it, no relevant grievance real or imagined, since everyone, if asked, would agree that longer lunches made for longer days; they were paid by the kiln, after all. Sad fact is, we like punishing people between the seams of our daily routines. We pack far too much truth in those split-second lags.

Then, on their first working Sunday, after some five days of finishing later than 6PM, the resentment that had been brewing finally bubbled into some ‘friendly’ questions.

“Hey, Jerr,” Kyle asked, “how many leaves you put on a stick?”

“Depends-dependzzz,” the big man said smiling in his all-the-world-loves-me, rosy-lipped way.

“How often do you check?” Cutter asked, looking up as though trying to glimpse his bangs. His hair was kinked and short.

“They feel alright to me,” Dylan said, giving in to some reluctant instinct to defend his boss.

“Aw, it’s okay, boys.” Jerry said. “Things will pick up once everyone gets the hang of things.”

“Something’s fucked up…” Kyle again.

“How often you count?” Gilles said with a frown that seemed unique to his puffy handsome-face, a look that suggested unpleasant odors as much as disapproving thoughts. “Da leefs? You count dem much?”

“Not so long as Ballard’s running the show,” Jerry cackled. He was obviously uncomfortable Now.

“Something, man,” Kyle said with a strangely nervous roll of the eyes across Jerry and beyond. “This working into dark is fucked up… It’s not right.”

“You should crank that,” Jerry said, rolling his head to the tune warbling out of the radio: Van Halen’s “Teacher.”

No one moved.

25

(1997)

Rachel and I met in a graduate seminar on Chaucer and post-structuralism during the third year of my PhD. Fucking Chaucer. Who would have known the pompous pilgrim had a thing for promiscuous signifiers?

After we slept together for the first time, Rachel told me that I had frightened her when she first noticed me. Apparently she had turned around to watch someone else responding to a question and caught me staring directly at her. Rather than break eye contact in embarrassment, however, I kept staring at her, with an almost psychotic intensity.

“I was looking over my shoulder all the way home!” she said in gushing confession. “I literally thought you were a psychopath or something… that you wanted to rape and murder me!”

I still have no idea what the hell she was talking about. Not the slightest recollection. But the fact that she believed it had happened and had let me into her pants anyway should have warned me away.

So we got married.

At the time, of course, we got married because we had finally found someone who ‘understood,’ who was compassionate and funny and brilliant and good-looking and whom we could talk-and-talk-and-talk to without ever running out of things to say. At the time we got married because it just made so much sense, splitting the costs, the chores, the friends–you name it. We got married because we were having fun and I was so fucking convincing, especially when I was dead wrong.

I had a theory for everything. Even then.

It was a small civil ceremony, the kind that seems surreal for being so bureaucratically aerodynamic. Everyone stood motionless, yet I felt like I was watching something about gliding thermals on IMAX.

Her mother flew in from Vancouver, where she was some kind of producer for the CBC. I remember we had this conversation at Swiss Chalet about why the Chinese could only develop technology so far before handing the baton to Europe. I realized then that she didn’t like me: apparently I was white trash–even though she had been the one angling at racial explanations for the Triumph of the West. She went straight back to the hotel afterward, begging jet-lag. Afterward Rachel told me they had been chased out of their old neighbourhood because of the influx of Hong Kong Chinese.

The following morning, the day of the ceremony, she finally came over to the apartment, a small, second-floor two-bedroom on Elias street. She looked brisk and smart, with the streamlined airs and attitudes you so often see on television. We took her to see the bedroom–a tense moment. “Yes, Margaret, this is where I feed it to your daughter… Right there. She likes to bite that corner of the pillow.”

Even though I never uttered a word of this, I’m quite certain this was what she heard.

All I said was, “Lot’s of light from the window…”

She stepped before the glowing rectangle, peering against the morning glare. Rachel and I joined her.

The house directly across from us was owned by this big-smiling, big-talking Jamaican that everyone called Smiles. He didn’t give a flying fuck who he rented rooms out to so long as he was paid: the place had become a Loadie Shelter as a result, a refuge from the cruelty and violence of a world that demanded sobriety, self-restraint, and a modicum of long-term strategic thinking. I didn’t mind it so much, but Rachel was out-and-out terrified of the place and its transient denizens.

At that instant, the three of us gazing down from our window, Smiles’s screen door exploded open on a lung-cracking “FUCK!” This shirtless red-haired guy staggered out onto the porch, teetered for a moment, then pulled out his dick and began pissing over the rail. He had his head craned around, chin on shoulder, and seemed to mumbling something to someone unseen. I remember that a bolt of sunlight managed to capture the disorderly arc of his piss, so that it glittered like magic before disappearing into the weedy shadows.

I almost laughed–I should have laughed.

Margaret simply turned away, acting for all the world as if the incident was apiece with everything else she had seen. “Romantic,” she said drily.

I already had a low opinion of Margaret, thanks to Rachel and all of her Mommy stories. I already knew that the ferocity of her judgements had everything to do with the ferocity of her appearance, that she was someone who was continually warring to be someone. Treat yourself with enough fascistic cruelty, and you can’t help but treat your loved ones the same. She possessed, I was later to find out, a veritable library of self-help books. The same way Christians use their self-abasement before God and Christ to leverage their comical self-righteousness, she used her ‘open-mindedness’ to New Age hacks to warrant her pompous insensitivity toward her daughter. Every time she mentioned the word ‘humility,’ I found myself hearing ‘humiliation.’

We hated each other instantly, it seemed. It was a visceral, atavistic recognition, as if the demons that possessed us had battled across the ages. Only years afterward would I realize the sordid truth: that we both possessed predatory, insecurity-fed personalities, and that Rachel was simply the last toy in the sandbox. It was a good old-fashioned competition of interests with nary a market to facilitate any equitable solution.

Someone was going to lose.

At some level I understood that war had been declared long before she had left Vancouver, that she was really just foraging for ammunition. She already knew that I was trash: all she needed was evidence.

This explains the stew of contradictory attitudes that accompanied our silent trundle down the stairs out to the sidewalk. Margaret cold and vindicated. Me bewildered. Rachel cold and inscrutable.

I found myself frowning at the rooming house as we crossed the street, wondering how I could suddenly feel ashamed of something I had told so many stories about–a house filled with all the characters I had been taught to cherish and celebrate from a safe distance. I remember thinking you had to dress losers in ink before you could think them beautiful. They horrify you in the nude, bring you face to face with all those aeons of social evolution, to the good ole days when thoughtless bigotry paid real reproductive dividends.

I was relegated to the back seat of Margaret’s rental. Just as I pulled open the door, I heard

“Fucking Weirdsma! Hee-heeee!”

All three of us turned to the rooming house, saw a figure lurch upright from the garden beneath the porch…

It was the redhead who had taken a piss not more than twenty minutes before.

“Nooo. Fucking. Waaaay, man!” he cried, speaking as if his vocal chords had a whammy-bar and speech were an instrument best played at the throaty edge of distortion. We stood dumbstruck. He crawled to his hands and knees, then staggered to his feet. He was sun-burned in that wincing, freckled way. His eyes were inflamed slits, his mouth mealy with a slurred grin. Grass cuttings adhered to his outline, and hooks of dirt blackened his jeans.

“Whaddafuck you sayinngg, man?”

He had that scrapper-scumbag build, lean and broad-shouldered: for Rachel and Margaret, I’m sure he looked like some kind of Viking nightmare.

But it was just Todd Stewart, this kid we used to tease in grade nine because of his name, only to cut him a berth once he proved himself a hardcore asskicker. He became a ‘buddy’ in the way of overlapping secondary school coalitions, a guy you never made plans with, but found yourself bumping into on a regular basis–and glad for it, simply because he was such a fucking dervish with his fists.

We always called him ‘Re-Todd,’ for obvious reasons. No one but no one fucked with you when Re-Todd was around. When he was 16, Dylan once watched him pound the shit out of this drunk behind Eddies, this old bar in St. Thomas. Dylan had gone home shaking, convinced he had witnessed a murder. The next morning he purchased his first newspaper, convinced he would find some salacious headline–RE-TODD MURDERS RETARD–and terrified he would be charged as an accessory, but there wasn’t so much as blip.

Todd was not to be trifled with, especially when he was blotto. Blowing him off was not an option. No one wants to get their ass kicked period, let alone by a Re-Todd.

So Dylan did the only thing he could. He stepped up to shake his hand, thumb-grip style. Todd was one of those guys who always liked to grab your hand high, so that you had no grip, while he could break your thumb if he wanted to. It was simply the headbanger version of those older guys who grabbed your fingers when shaking hands: the traditional way to make you feel effeminate.

I introduced him to Rachel and Margaret, then told him that I was about to get married, hoping to jar a little dignity loose in him. He kept shaking my thumb, saying “Cungratch, man! Cungratch! Fucking married! Whoa! Too fucking much! Are you fucking kidding me!”

As strange as this might sound, this was the first time I had seen anyone with a ring through their nipple. It looked particularly graphic with Todd simply because his nipples were so Hello-Kitty pink.

I finally managed to disengage my hand. He followed me to the car door. He made a cartoonhish oh-aren’t-we-high-and-mighty-face? at the girls as they hastily jumped in the front.

“You banging that,” he cried in a false whisper, laughing and grinning like he had just met the Prime Minister and farted while shaking his hand. “Fuck, Dylan! You did awwwllright, man!”

It would be hard to explain the feeling in my throat: the kind of torsion that only warring social facts can produce. These are the moments that make plain the looping lines that locate you in social space–and reveal your lack of substance.

“See ya around, Todd. Peace out, brother.”

“Oooooow! Cungratchululations…” An instant of thick-tongued rage, bent into a sneering grin. “Yeaaaah, Motherfucker!”

Shame, you see, is just one of those impossible-to-hide-things, like smoke or a pungent smell: even total drunks can sense it. Todd made as if to wave, but began playing air guitar as we floated, then whisked away. He never bothered shooting me the finger. He didn’t need to.

We had breakfast at Mickey D’s–no one had the wind for anything more sophisticated. I kept waiting for either woman to mention the incident directly. Neither did.

They spent the whole time talking about the importance of University.

“Ooh. That does sound interesting… What about you, Dylan?”

26

(Indeterminate)

They’ve installed screens and VDPs in the classrooms, with jacks I can connect my computer to. I rarely use them. All I seem to do is talk anymore.

The sun shines through tall Edwardian windows, throwing three oblongs of sunlight across the rows. My students cluster in the far corners of the room to avoid them, but there’s always a stubborn few, young with beauty, beautiful with youth, sitting in the light. The sun enamels them, dims colour into shadow.

They squint at me, wondering why they should care.

Who is this salesman cum preacher? This gantry?

You need to buy this special, abrasive soap to clean up afterward. Sand-soap, they call it. And even then you can still see it, faint in the whorls of your skin. The residue.

Nothing stains quite so deeply, so stubbornly, as the fields.

27

(1984)

Generally you worked rain or shine in tobacco–thunderstorms were the only exception, since lightening was a real danger. The first thunderstorm rolled in, conveniently enough, before they hit the fields, and more importantly, the day after payday.

Which meant that Long Tom had acid.

It’s hard to think of a drug more aptly named than acid, with the possible exception of crack.

The great and horrible thing about dropping acid is that the world always comes along for the ride. Sometimes it unfurls before you like an exquisite rug, allowing you see the beauty in the weave of inanities that comprise our lives. Sometimes you carry it on your back, and you have this sense that if you stand and shrug hard enough it will slip to your waist, become something you can climb out of like a wading pool. Sometimes it baits and dogs you, barks and snaps like a thing with a million vicious heads.

But mostly it follows you around like a portable cage.

Dylan liked to grab the bars and rattle.

You laugh a lot. You read minds [5] from faces. You can feel the neural circuits sizzle. And if the acid is good enough, you drink and drink to keep the beast down. Since it holds consciousness up by the scruff of the neck, you can punish yourself with quantities of booze and dope that would send you crashing to the mat otherwise .

Acid was to be respected.

Circumstances had to be controlled: if the world is going to get fried with you, you want to make sure you bring the right kind of world with you.

First and foremost, assholes had to be policed: Nothing was worse than finding yourself trapped with an asshole on acid. The problem with acid is that you end up thinking faster than you can think, which isn’t nearly as impossible as it sounds. Like dope, acid left a stone-cold sober version of you intact. No matter how mad the madness, there you would be, here, watching yourself race from moment to moment, too far after-the-fact to really get a handle on anything. This made any form of provocation dangerous in the extreme, because you tended to react with alarming speed. The sober part of you would watch with horror as your words and emotions–and sometimes even fists–sprinted far ahead.

Supplies needed to stockpiled: the only thing worse than dealing with an asshole, was running out of booze while on some particularly potent acid. “Blotter,” which was simply a small square of paper that had been soaked in LSD, was always a kind of gamble because you never knew exactly how much acid you were taking. Maybe the biker with the eye-dropper had a periodic tremor, or even worse, a diabolic sense of humour. With acid, quantity control was always as dicey an issue as quality control. You could take one hit and find yourself riding five. And when that happened, pray-pray-pray that you had enough beer or whiskey or what-have-you on hand to blanket the crashing edges.

Moods needed to be controlled: moods were contagion when people took acid. One person laughing meant everyone laughing. One person freaking meant everyone freaking. Dylan and his buddies had all dropped acid to celebrate New Years the prior winter, and even though everything had been carefully prepared, assholes avoided, supplies laid up, the night had nevertheless turned into a nightmare simply because of the way the mood of the group had reverberated and transformed. It started with a single negative vibe–a dude catching a buddy staring at his girlfriend’s ass–and the night ended shaking itself apart within a matter of a few hours.

Fights. Screaming.

Of course none of these rules were observed the day Dylan dropped Long Tom’s acid. “Orange Owl,” he called it, because it came in little orange squares of construction paper with a small cartoon owl printed on it. That day, and all the many days after that, it was acid au natural.

Let the brain cells fall where they may.

[5] It has been mistaken for a ‘mind.’

28

(Indeterminate)

The world roars.

All the time, without pausing for breath or remorse. The world is a beast, and we are fleas trapped in its matted pelt. You understand this when you drop acid.

The world is a mouth and details are its teeth.

Acid lets you step out, glimpse the existential bandwidth of the life you lead. The signal, you realize, has more strength than your senses can swallow.

You hear the hiss and crackle of reality. Like a station that never quite comes in.

29

(1984)

“I’m telling you, man, Indians are the niggers of Canada!”

Kyle–of course.

“Oh yeah?” Cutter quipped. “Then why can’t you guys fucking run?”

Everyone laughed hard at that, but for some reason it still sounded straight. Dylan simply sat back, sucking it all in with pupils like watch-batteries.

“Hey,” Long Tom said. His voice was so much a surprise and so at odds with his appearance that it always prompted an involuntary exchange of glances. “What’s wrong with four niggers in a Cadillac going over a cliff?”

“Nice car?” Gilles ventured lamely–though his heavy accent made everything he said sound cute.

“A Cadillac seats five.”

Guffaws and several slugs of beer. There’s always this point of indecision, when waiting for acid to sink in, where the laughter’s brimming but not quite ready to spill. A good buzz required foreplay.

“Hey,” Buke called out from his bunk. “What does a squaw say when having sex?”

It was like someone had strung a clothesline through the room and hooked everyone’s nerves to it. Buke was already snorting in laughter. “‘Get off me pa! You’re crushing me smokes!’”

Cutter howled, but in a way that made it clear that it was Buke’s stupidity he found so funny, not the joke.

Long Tom casually stood up, walked toward where Buke was sitting.

Kyle continued as though none of it had happened. “You make jokes, but I’m serious. We’re oppressed, man!”

“Oppressed?” Cutter cried, holding up fingers to count. “You pay no taxes, you go to college for free, the government spends billions… I wish I was a nigger Indian!”

Buke was looking up at Long Tom. “Hey,” he was saying. “Tom. It was just a joke–”

Long Tom made as though to hit him, stomped his foot instead. He turned, laughing at the sight of Buke with his head ducked, his forearms bent into a cage about his face.

“He’s right, Chief,” Gilles said. “You Indians think you have it tough, eh? The French as much niggers as you. More.”

Kyle made a face while downing a slug of beer. “You stole our land, then the English stole yours. Boo-fucking-hoo. Get to the back of the line.”

Long Tom resumed his seat, smiling at everyone and nodding toward Buke. He had shown him, Now he wanted to show everyone else.

Cutter leaned forward, shuffling the cards. “But that’s the fucking point, isn’t it? Whine-whine-whine.” He wagged his eyes at heaven. “You guys lost, we won. Just fucking deal with it.”

You fucking deal!” Gilles cried, obviously pleased with his mastery of English puns. “Then we’ll see who wins.” He turned to spout something in French to Thierry, whose eyes flickered between the two Indians before laughing.

Gilles, who had been driving BT’s the whole time, finally handed one to Dylan. Kyle, meanwhile, was watching Cutter more carefully than Dylan liked. “You probably think Reagan’s the best president we’ve ever had,” the pudgy radical said.

“Fucking A, I do.”

“I like him too,” Gilles said. “We should throw more our weight around, I think.”

“He’s a cowboy,” Kyle said, a psychedelic twinkle in his eye. “We Indians don’t like cowboys, eh, Tom?”

Tom’s smile had a kind of endearing menace to it, almost Sears Catalogue perfect, yet slippery, as though it could be as easily attached to a fatal stabbing as to a buddy’s joke. Nodding, he flicked the black silk of his hair over his shoulder. Everyone’s knees were pumping beneath the table Now, too quick for anything short of fast-motion photography. Their laughter had reached that tinderbox phase, where the sparks always seemed to swirl.

“Reagan isn’t our president,” Dylan coughed out.

“Are you playing?” Cutter demanded, holding a card out in a freeze-frame deal.

“No,” Dylan said, shaking his head in a cloud of smoke. He already knew these guys played deeper than he was willing to go.

“Then shut the fuck up,” he said, snorting and tossing cards–red Bicycles. Everyone glanced at Dylan and laughed, but in a manner far different than when they laughed at Buke. There was something almost affectionate about it, as though his youth was the one thing they could all agree on. Aside from sitting in Cutter’s shielding shadow, he was officially the “Kid.” You only went through the motions of giving the Kid a hard time–everyone knew that…

Except Buke.

“What? You a fucking pussy or something, Pickle-boy?”

This from someone who also refused to play poker. At some level Dylan knew that Buke resented him because he thought Dylan should be the natural runt of the litter.

“At least a pussy’s useful!” Cutter cracked past his cigarette. Cutter never, not once, glanced at Buke while he was carving him, and this, for some arcane reason, made it all the more damning, looking at others while baiting someone.

Another, almost delirious spasm of laughter. Smiling, Dylan turned and shot Buke the finger. It was intense.

He didn’t really mean it though.

30

(Indeterminate)

Let’s be clear as to what kind of people I’m talking about. Reading about them, you might be inclined to think they’re entertaining, interesting, maybe even cool. But if you were to meet any of them, any of them, I don’t care how much egalitarian rhetoric you throw at me, you would instantly judge them. If they accosted you, you would go tactically blank, maintain momentary eye contact, say something at once courteous and dismissive. You would, in other words, do everything you could to fall between the cracks of their attention. If you’re a homeowner, you would watch them, just to make sure, and if they have the temerity to soak in their surroundings–your neighbourhood–you would be convinced they were casing homes for robbery.

Of all the insidious flatteries that reading instills in people like you, few are more destructive than the illusion that you’re an open, accepting person. The illusion that you don’t judge.

These are the people who instantly instill feelings of moral superiority. But where others would simply call them lowlifes, scumbags, loadies, or whatever caste slang happens to be in fashion, you pretend to know them, to “sympathize” with their “plight,” even as you carefully follow their progress along the perimeter of your property lines. Why do you think they hate you so much?

And they do hate you.

This is what made things so difficult for Dylan, growing up as he did in their midst. Now and again they would catch a whiff of you in him. At that age, judging and shame exercised the same exhausted muscle in Dylan–his feelings of superiority were too brittle not to crumble whenever he clutched for them. There was no self-righteousness for them to see, though their was plenty of arrogance. And yet, many of those who took an instant dislike to him did so because they could see the self-righteousness to come. They could see the prejudicial buds that would bloom once he was replanted in university soil.

Because no one is more self-righteous than the educated. Thinking you know more is one thing. Knowing that you know more is a different animal entirely. Especially when you’re wrong.

How many times have you been embarrassed for the lone non-academic in academic company? How often have you secretly rolled your eyes at this or that family inanity at Christmas dinner? How many time have you uttered some version of the words, “They just don’t get it”?

I’m sure you have this rationalized somehow, that you have some meta-cognitive admission or apologia or shrug-of-the-shoulders.

Think about fundamentalist Christians, whom, I have no doubt, you think epitomize self-righteousness. What is it, in their minds, that makes them morally superior to you? A belief system. Nothing more, nothing less. Granted, the types of judgements they hang from that belief system are absurdly drastic, but the fact remains: beliefs are cheap. This is what makes them so evangelically optimistic: they understand that the line dividing you from them is tragically thin. All you gotta do is say, “Yes!” to Jesus, you’re in like Flynn.

Now what do you think makes you morally superior to Christian fundamentalists? (You can knock off the “But-I-don’t-feel-morally-superior-to-anyone,” bullshit, because I know you do. We’re judging machines.) Is it simply a matter of belief systems? Oh, no. Set this book down, walk to the nearest construction site, and begin explaining your belief system to the “guys.” Impossible, isn’t it? Your belief system is a hot-house flower, one requiring an extended period of specialized training to comprehend, let alone appreciate. In other words, it’s not simply a belief system that lies at the basis of your feelings of moral superiority, it’s also a prolonged period of institutionalization.

But it’s more than that, isn’t it? because there are real issues of inclination and native ability involved in the pursuit of an education like yours. It’s not simply what you believe that sets you apart, nor what you have undergone to wrest those beliefs out of the ignorant dark, but the grain of your character and your inborn intellectual abilities. It’s not just that everyone in the world is an “undergrad” to you. At least undergrads have bared their skin to the light of your learning, right down to bikini bottoms and Speedos. Everyone else, all the poor, slovenly masses, the “victims of corporate cretinization,” the ones who “don’t know better,” because they “never had the chance,” are actually made of lesser stuff, aren’t they? This is why you’re loathe to evangelize outside the classroom, why you think it’s largely a waste of time talking to the likes of them. This is why you aim all your gifts away from people in general, and seek out those you can congratulate as surrogates for yourself.

And you wonder why they hate you? The moral superiority of aristocracy has a stink all its own, and trust me, my friend, you reek of it.

Which is what makes the pedestrian character of your conceit so laughable. After all, what makes you feel morally superior are just all the things that are yours. All the ways you identify yourself as an exception, as somehow special…

Just like everyone else.

It’s only the intricacy and, dare I say it? the essentialism of your moral superiority that sets you apart. Admit it. You think you’re better to the pith.

(No! you say. Yes…)

So let’s be honest, here, as writer and reader. [6] These are the people that you look down on, that you loathe and ridicule in the hill-billy fringes of your own family. If you want to honestly read about then, imagine how your skin would crawl if you found yourself in their midst. Imagine the defensive train of condescending thoughts that would flit through you, the moments of self-reproach, the stillborn reminders to be open and egalitarian, poised on the brink of the inevitable condemnation to come. Imagine your fear, the unthought recognition that should things turn sour, nothing you could say or do would be of any use. Imagine the company of cruel, crude, and most importantly, impervious people.

Imagine being hated.

[6] It has been called ‘you’ and it has been called ‘I.’

Light, Time, and Gravity (V)

by rsbakker

Book Two: Harvest

1

(1984)

There’s always this lull before tobacco harvest begins. It’s like you can hear it idling in the future, the clatter of machinery, the carnival of characters. The summer skies hang hot and indolent. The flies scribble through windless air. And it seems impossible that you can be lazy, that you can wander down lanes kicking dirt, listening.

Sometimes, when I get roped into teaching summer courses, I catch a whiff of that lull while humping across campus. It seems monstrous for being so faint, and I think of lulls fading from the world the way magic passed from Middle-earth. Life, at its best, is a funnel, at its worst, a burning theatre with a single exit: there’s no way to move forward without being squeezed. Something has got to go.

Easy breathing is usually the first casualty.

The days leading up to the harvest of 1984 possessed a peculiar calm, almost spooky in a Hollywood, eye-of-the-hurricane way. So much was happening: the Los Angeles Olympics were ramping up, Mondale was taking a run at Reagan in the American election, Mulroney was besieging a bum-patting Turner, and Penthouse published Miss America thrusting her muff into another woman’s mouth–or was it vice versa?

The world had become a circus, and the Wiersma family had set up in the abandoned bleachers, watching the acts coming fast and furious. The “Madness” they called it. At some point every evening Dad and Dylan would come trundling down the stairs to catch up on the latest developments. Johnny would be watching Conan the Barbarian, of course. “Just wait-wait-wait!” he would cry, turtling over the remote control. “Just this scene! He’s about to punch the camel!”

“Johnny!” Dad would cry. “Johnny!” But he would wait without complaint: by this time he was almost as addicted to Arnie as Johnny and I were. He could do without the faggotty fantasy stuff, sure, but in terms of character. Conan: Now there was someone who knew how to cut through the bullshit. Nothing like a sword to sort things out–simplify.

According to him, the obvious was forever staring people “in the fucking face.”

Frank Wiersma argued politics whenever he got drunk, which meant that Dylan spent pretty much every night arguing politics. Dad would typically begin with something extreme, like saying seals should be hunted to extinction, that the Jews should be driven back into the sea, that America should just the nuke the Middle-east and “be fucking done with it,” just to bait Dylan–or so he would always claim afterward. He always carried a big man swagger when he drank, a kind of between-you-and-me assertion of physical supremacy–a look and laugh that said, I’m bigger. The more he drank, the more he would push this bullying intensity to the limit of provocation. He would shout. He would pound his fist on the table. He would sneer and cackle. And sometimes, when the booze pushed him over the self-pitying ledge, he would slump from the debate altogether, weep for all the injustices and betrayals he had suffered. “Those poor Palestinians” would become, “Your poor Dad.”

Dylan would weather it all, fight back with every wit and dirty trick he possessed. When it glimpsed hatred in Dad’s slouched look, he would hate back. When he glimpsed amused contempt, it would be sure to laugh first. “Dad! Dad!” he would mock. “Look at you! You think you can solve the world’s problems? You can’t even sit on your fucking chair!”

He honed his scathing laugh until it became something preternatural, a sound that reached into the brain’s deepest circuits and resonated. The logic of his arguments simply shambled along, a rubber skeleton he could bend this way or that, whatever would make the biggest fool of his opponent.

He instinctively understood that the real lever of argumentation wasn’t reason, but shame. Make someone look a fool, and they were a fool. It would render Dylan a formidable opponent in university–and a despised one.

But despite the intensity of these arguments, they rarely left any residue of hard feelings outside of, “Yeah, that’s fucking Dad for you.” The bad ones–and some were horrible–they would joke about the following morning, and without the merest resentment. It was almost as if the movements were the only thing that mattered; the emotional content seemed eminently disposable, even though it was the fate of peoples and nations that were at stake. A father-son reflex. It was like reading about war, the way deaths can pile up in the millions without once crimping the smooth lines of fascination.

“Wow. That war was a real bitch.”

The entertainment value of death and suffering has always been a function of time and space. None of it was real around the kitchen table. The Soviets. The CIA. The White House. The Lebanese refugee camps. These were simply chits in a far more immediate–and therefore far more important–power struggle. Dad and Dylan were as removed as only Canadians can be.

They pretended to care, sure, but they never pretended to be involved.

Despite all the arguing, both of them shared a remarkable convergence of views. “Sink or swim!” was their foundational slogan. Every movie he watched, every book he read, every album he banged his head to, shouted as much over and over. The world was a hardass, which meant that foreign policy required hard-ball, that economic policy required thick skin, and that domestic policy required tough love. A politician had to put his dick on the table… Especially if they were a chick like Maggie.

After his political conversion in University, Dylan found himself dumbfounded, not by the silliness of this outlook: the masculine fascination with dominance hierarchies and its sublimation in political attitudes seemed only too natural, as did the cynical exploitation of these attitudes by powerful interests. No, it was his conviction that mystified him. How could something so stupid strike anyone (let alone someone with his smarts) as out and out obvious?

The Politics of the Dick.

Later, when Dylan became me, he would realize that dick-waving was inescapable, that complexity swamped all political claims in the end. In the absence of knowledge, humans instinctively resort to its semblance. Politics is simply religion without reverence.

More guesses to die for.

2

(Present)

There are no laws of nature, here. We are the only obstacles.

Me. You. It.

Let’s not pretend otherwise.

X

(Childhood)

When I was a kid, me and the neighbours would gather at the Parsons, who lived about a mile or so down the road. They had this basement rec-room with a single lonely window. We would hang blankets over it, tape the creases of the doors, do everything we needed to render it pitch-perfect black when the lights were switched off.

Then we would play blind wrestling.

They had these old pillows that we used in lieu of hammers. The stuffing would congeal into a medicine-ball mass so that you could swing them like a ball and chain–do real damage to your opponent. Sometimes I charged into the thick of the melee, swinging and howling the warcry all boys are born knowing. Sometimes it slunk along the margins, tracking the battles with pricked ears, creeping up to ambush already-engaged adversaries.

And you know what I remember the most vividly? The grin. The wild-eyed, gum-drying grin. We would howl in laughter whenever we got smacked, whenever a swoosh in the darkness connected, whenever a hand happened upon our ankles. Scamble, duck, and strike. We would cry out whenever we struck. We would swear

Fuck! Fuck!

You bastard! You prick!

Fuck yoooou!

We fought abstractions, shadows that our brains concocted from sounds and angles of impact. We piled like growling puppies. We grappled with strangers who were our best friends. And almost always someone lost their temper. Almost always the sounds of crying or angry shouts sent us fumbling to the walls, searching for the only light switch.

Sometimes we would be so disoriented that minutes passed before we could find it. And even at that age I used to wonder what would happen if we never found it, if we were forced to wrestle in this black for the rest of our lives.

It found the idea thrilling.

Even when I was the one crying.

3

(1984)

The election campaign was already three weeks old the night of the fateful debate of July 25th, plenty of time for Dad and Dylan–and even Johnny–to become totally absorbed in the melodrama. All three of them liked Ed Broadbent: there was no doubting his boot-faced authenticity. But for some reason, his arguments made the kind of sense that collapsed into head-scratching whenever you tried to remember them. Besides, everyone knew that the NDP were pro-union, and unions were the reason Canadians were losing the Great Race. He was the kind of guy that everyone waved to, said complimentary things about, but no one invited to their parties.

Turner was, in a word, tense. He spoke tensely. He stood tensely. He even stared tensely. If life were a flick, he would be the uptight lieutenant whose arrogance and inexperience would inevitably get somebody killed–like Gorman in Aliens. The only mystery was how the Liberals could have picked such an obviously unelectable man as party leader. Maybe it was backroom politicking. Maybe Trudeau was simply too big, too dazzling, not to leave everyone blinking and half-blinded in his wake. Either way, Turner seemed to broadcast the kind of constipated discomfort common to those who use anger medicinally.

But Mulroney–ah, Mulroney. That lopsided grin. That sociopathic twinkle of the eye. That voice-over voice.

Few things gratify people as much as confirmation, especially if the matter at issue is controversial. Of all the buzzes that life has to offer, being right has to rank up there with carnal consent. The world has a three word vocabulary: yes, no, and maybe. And like the parent of a two year old, it wears its voice to a croak saying no, maybe, and no, over and over again. This is why the gratification of finally hearing yes! is so often childish in its intensity–why game show contestants blink so many tears.

Dad and Dylan had spent quite some time debating in anticipation of the debate, but the one point of agreement they continuously returned to was that Mulroney was going to kick some serious Turner ass. As usual, they inserted their own commentary during the news coverage. With Turner it was something like: “Look at him. Look. At him!”

“Is it my imagination, or does that guy need to crap?”

“Needs something. Look at him!”

“So nervous. Remember that shot the CBC had of him, gripping the wood of his stand thing-a-ma-jingy. Talk about white knuckles.”

“What a fucking idiot! What were the Liberals thinking?”

Their attention inevitably drifted when the coverage turned to the NDP.

“Seems like a nice guy.”

“Yeah… Who?”

“Eddy Broadbent.”

“Yeah. He’s gotta a face only a mother could love.”

“Looks like she loved it many times.”

“He does have that fresh-scrubbed look!”

But when the Tory signs started bobbing across the screen they leaned forward, elbows on knees, as avid as parishioners about to hear news of their salvation.

“Oh, he’s suave, alright.”

“Sense of humour, too.”

“Cracks me up. Turner doesn’t stand a chance.”

“Makes poor Joe look about as classy as a sweat sock.”

“I always liked poor Joe.”

From the outset the debate had that strained aura of an obscure sport that suddenly finds itself televised: you know, where everyone does their best to ignore the fact they’re ignoring the cameras. Dad and Dylan continually shouted over the debaters, contradicting or affirming points, cracking jokes, or just generally bitching. But when Turner began criticizing Mulroney for already planning his patronage appointments, they both fell silent. This was a surprise, given that Turner had spent the previous weeks defending his own patronage record. Somehow, by dint of nonverbal confidence perhaps, Mulroney shrugged off the accusation and launched his own attack. It was almost as if he had reached out and flicked on Turner’s defensive switch.

“Well,” Turner responded, “I’ve told you and told the Canadian people, Mr. Mulroney, that I had no option.”

“Well, you had an option, sir,” Mulroney replied. “You could have said, ‘I am not going to do it. This is wrong for Canada, and I’m not going to ask Canadians to pay the price.’ You had an option, sir, to say, ‘No,’ and chose to say, ‘Yes,’ to the old attitudes and the old stories of the Liberal Party.” Mulroney raised a pointed finger, while Turner waved his hands out and low, as though trying to calm someone with a gun. “That, sir, if I may say respectfully”–he turned to the camera, to the audience, to Canada, and away from his inconsequential opponent–”that is not good enough for Canadians.”

“I had no option,” Turner replied.

Calm down, his body language said. Please. Put. The. Gun. Down.

“That is an avowal of failure!” Mulroney shouted. “That is a confession of non-leadership, and this country needs leadership. You had an option, Sir. You could have done better.” Again he looked away before finishing–Dylan almost expected him to wheel his eyes in a quick what-the-fuck? to heaven. Turner stammered beneath.

The Moderator stepped in. “Mr. Turner, your response, sir.”

“I-ah… I just said Mr. Moderator, I have taken the Canadian people through the circumstances.”

In terms of content, the exchange was all but meaningless. What was arguably one of the most consequential moments in the history of contemporary Canadian politics boiled down to a simple contest of stone-age fitness indicators.

Sure!” Dad boomed. “Fucking blame it all on Trudeau!”

But Dylan could only think, Cutter

It was all shades of Cutter.

4

(Inapplicable)

Claims in narrative always have a specific time and a place. Then, there. Now, here. Claims in theory do not–as a rule.

This is why ambiguity in narrative so often generates understanding, while ambiguity in theory typically diminishes it. The particularity of narrative content bears the possibility of generalization within it, the possibility of some superordinate understanding–which is to say, some interpretative theory. Does the preceding comprise a kind of Bildungsroman, a story of an identity coming to be, a rising from the murk? Or is it something opposite, the story of an identity lost in the convolutions of prestige masquerading as moral and intellectual superiority–or worse yet, the search for ‘truth’? Is it neither? Is it both? The more ambiguous the narrative, the more the particulars lend themselves to incompatible generalizations. Since any one interpretation shuts down the possibility of others, generalizing over ambiguous narratives seems to become a form of violence, a shutting down of possibilities. Narrative, as a result, seems to constitute a special form of cognition, one that transcends logic, insofar as it contains the possibility of logically incompatible interpretations within it.

Stories become shadows thrown by impossible objects…

Narrative becomes the bearer of unspeakable truths.

Something mystical.

Like this

5

(Inapplicable)

Since the content of theory has no time and place, all theory finds itself occupying the same semantic space, the same nowhere. Rather than gesturing to the unspeakable, the possibility of alternate incompatible interpretations generates logical interference.

This is why inventive philosophers will often produce multiple, competing interpretations (accomplish in the space of a single paper what typically takes communities of more slow-witted philosophers several years) to discredit claims. Ambiguity tells against theoretical cognition–generally speaking. And pretty much any theoretical claim can be made ambiguous, qualified and redefined unto contradiction.

Narrative cognition is theoretical confusion.

6

(Inapplicable)

The easiest way to command a theory is to make it the particle of some narrative. Tell a story around a theory, and suddenly it becomes just another contingent product, something pinned to a time and place. Narratives are flea-markets: pretty much anything can be accommodated so long as some simple rules of bartering are observed.

The easiest way to command a narrative is make it the subject of a theory. Theorize a story, and suddenly the story becomes disposable, an instantiation of something that ranges across time and place. Theories are watches, virtual mechanisms whose elements are too bound by implication to oblige any old semantic wiggling. Whatever they quantify over has to fit, otherwise it gets thrown out.

And this is why no theory ever commands a narrative for long: sooner or later somebody notices what’s been thrown out. And that’s all you gotta do: simply look at the recalcitrant details long enough, and they will become the new interpretative foreground–‘what’s really important.’ Our unconscious compulsion to game ambiguities takes over from there. Suddenly the old theory will seem ‘to have missed the entire point’ of the story–a point encapsulated, conveniently enough, by your new theory.

X

(Inapplicable)

Narratives sequence events, arrange them like beads on the string of human life.

Theories organize them into hierarchies. They boil away the particularities, attempting to seize structural iterations, so that we can travel lighter. Economize.

Narratives transform events into circumstances, things that encircle and embroil.

Theories transform events into instances, things that can be sorted, heaped, so that we don’t have to sift through all the clutter. They lighten the load of thinking, which is probably why homo theoreticus was selected for in the first place: there’s no bigger glutton at the metabolic table than the human brain.

Narratives connect us to the world, typically in flattering and terrifying ways, given our vanity and weakness for exaggeration.

Theories allow us to be more stupid more efficiently. They idiot-proof the world. A theoretician is someone who sees shortcuts at every turn, ways to condense thinking into concepts and their relations–things as apparently static as the human soul.

And this is why theories resonate with so much apparent meaning, why they seem so deep (despite being so cheap). They make a harvest of the world’s complexity. They pick, they sort, they bind and they bale. They go to auction. They make the immovable weightless, so that existence [1] itself can become the butt of shallow jokes.

And like Nancy, they never age. They seem to hang with us, outside the outside, separate and magically immune, as spooky as ghosts…

Theory shares our substance, which is why it enlarges us, to the point where almost every event we witness strikes some chord of faulty comprehension. Theories are deep simply because they share our compass, and we are the most profound thing we know. Theoreticians seem bloated because they are.

Narratives are meadows.

Theories are crops. Something we use to extort sustenance–meaning–from the crude earth of story.

The weeds go unnoticed. And somehow, magically, no one gets their hands dirty.

[1] It is a net of being cast about becoming.

7

(1996)

After that first failed oral defence of his project, Dylan drastically scaled back his theoretical ambitions. There’s a psychic pain peculiar to studying literary theory at the graduate level, one that you only come to understand once you find yourself teaching theory at the graduate level–and believing none of it. The primary problem is that you find yourself beginning at the terminus of philosophy, then working your way back toward the origins. You find yourself struggling to grasp some twenty-five centuries of successive conceptual deformations, the gaming of thoughts for ever more specialized applications, not to mention twenty-five centuries of names and relationships and problematics.

As a result you spend a great deal of time talking shit about shit that you know shit-all about. You’re like a toddler, catching certain words and attitudes and throwing them back at different situations, searching for those that ‘fit.’ Some of the stuff you never ‘comprehend,’ at least not in the sense of being able to decompose it for competent use in other combinatorial capacities. But you do learn when to use it, and this eventually begins to seem like understanding enough, especially given your ignorance of the alternatives.

Thus the great ‘imposter syndrome’ suffered by so many grad students in the humanities: the knowledge (as opposed to the mere fear) that you are not what you are so desperately trying to appear to be. You feel like a fraud simply because you are one, a poser in the sense of assuming intellectual airs, tones and attitudes that convey a confidence and a conviction you do not feel.

And so you soldier on, pretending… hoping. If you could just master Hegel, or Deleuze, or whoever happens to momentarily command the most ingroup prestige. If you could just… find… the right… words… You have this sense that you’re transforming yourself into something different, that wiring your brain to decode so much abstract cogitation somehow overwrites the person you once were. But you never really buy into it, simply because you seem to remain the same, moment to moment, year to year.

So you tell yourself you’re the ‘same guy’ you always were, when you are anything but.

Theory makes you lonely, you see.

It has to, simply because it turns you into something else, endows you with a brain that mirrors the brains of so very few others. Some can compartmentalize, keep the old routines–and most importantly, the old emotional responses intact–some. Others cannot. The more they attune themselves to esoteric code, the more they deform and disfigure all of the old ways of interacting.

You think this makes you ‘original,’ so much so that you smirk at the punks with their tattoos and piercings, knowing that you really are ‘individual’ in the way they pretend and pay to be. You think you should be celebrated, but you resign yourself to obscurity, knowing that the world just isn’t ‘ready’ for the likes of you.

You forget that our brains evolved in much more trying times, that they are designed to be exquisitely sensitive to the plasticity of other brains–the ways they vary. Other brains can feed you, fuck you, kill you–nothing could be more important than ascertaining and tracking the beliefs and attitudes of those around you. You forget that your grandiose ‘cognitive accomplishment’ is at once a defection and a self-inflicted deformity–that other brains smell your incipient treachery, your deviance. In the most basic, biological terms, this is what theory is: the mangling of a machine designed to facilitate social cohesion in times of scarcity and competition. To embrace theory is to embrace cowardice, treason–and pathological self-regard above all. To become unreliable.

Others see this in varying degrees–and this is why they hate you. The reflex is so strong that it can even crack the bonds of kinship and marriage.

Before he died, my brother Johnny decided that he despised me. He sent me these emails that began with the high-minded intent of ‘clearing the air,’ then descended into vitriol and the enumeration of sins. At first I refused to reply in kind, told him that everyone has lists of slights and misdemeanours, that the only difference was the amount of anger that we chose to invest in them. But then a second list arrived. And a third.

So I sent one back–what turned out to be the last words of mine he would see before the brown waves swept him away.

Only afterward, in the course of explaining away my shame and guilt, did I come to realize the truth of the matter, that sorting thoughts is no different than sorting people.

You see so many of them, fucking thoughts, that dismissal becomes second nature. You think this wilful exposure makes you ‘open to anything,’ when really you’ve sealed yourself against everything, except whatever boutique problematic (with obligatory ‘far-reaching consequences’) happens to be on your computer screen.

The problem actually lies at the very root of communication. Our incentive to speak or to listen always turns on trust, the belief that our interlocutor isn’t insane, duped, or lying. Become a theorist, remain a theorist, and that trust slowly begins to evaporate. Personalities become fronts. Convictions become politically complicit dodges. You murder everything visible, and began organizing your attitudes around things nobody else can see. You lose sight of your old trust and with it the general incentive to communicate. You stop talking, and you give up even trying to pretend to listen. Only your career can command your attention.

And all the people around you, the healthy automatons, begin to sense your withdrawal, and to reciprocate according to the role they suppose they should play in your life. Everyone smells arrogance, no matter how many jokes you crack regarding your stupidity, or how carefully you censor pride from everything you do manage to say. Old friends simply let the paths of least resistence shunt them away and away. Spouses begin obsessing over the sense that ‘something is missing,’ unloading on you from time to time, only to be beaten back by the cruel ingenuity of your rationalizations. And family members respond to the degree that they need you…

Or mourn.

And you? Eventually, you do the same thing that we all do: you cook up theories to explain them all. You always knew them better than they knew themselves anyway…

You pretend to be hurt… mystified…

And most importantly, vindicated.

8

(1984)

Tobacco harvest at this time was essentially organized around two different machines: the tying machine up at the kiln, and the priming machine out in the fields. The whole point of harvest was to get the leaves out of the field and up in the kiln, where they would be dried out in a week-long process called ‘flue curing.’

The priming machine was a kind of tractor on stilts; it straddled three rows, with one central wheel out front, two larger wheels in the back, and a loud engine–an ancient Briggs & Stratton in this case–welded above with a seat and steering wheel that were only used when driving the thing from field to field. Steel seats and a two foot by two foot square bin hung from the frame, one behind the front wheel in the central row, and two in front of the back wheels in each adjacent row. Two more seats were towed behind, one behind the left rear wheel–for the inevitable leftie in the priming crew–and another extending out in a fourth row. This way, five rows could be primed at a time.

Since the leaves ripened from the bottom up, ‘priming’ literally consisted of picking the three bottommost leaves of each plant, one plant after another. In the beginning of the season, you would sit hunched in your seat, reaching out with both hands to prime the ‘sands,’ the leaves at the very base of the plant. Then you simply counted up with ‘firsts,’ ‘seconds,’ ‘thirds,’ and so on, until you got the ‘tips,’ the final–and most valuable–three leaves on a plant.

Those with big and nimble hands could to do several plants before flapping the leaves into the ‘baggie’ loaded in the bin before them. You filled it handful by handful, trying to keep the butts of the leaves lined up as neatly as haste allowed. As slow as the priming machine seemed to move across the field, the individual plants flashed by for the primer. Baggies were simply rectangular sections of canvas with grommets on one end, and with hooked bungie cords on the other. The first primer to fill his bin would shout, and the driver would knock the machine in neutral so that the whole crew could wrap their baggies and toss them onto the racks up above. Some baggies would be huge, like tobacco enchiladas about to explode, while others would be loose. Because of this, you could always suss out slackers at a glance. It also meant that hard workers were always keen–to the point of fisticuffs–on getting the same row on subsequent passes through the field. If you skimped on your row early in the season, say by averaging only two leaves per plant as opposed to three, you were pretty much fucked at the end. Because you had more leaves to pick, you either killed yourself priming, or you ended up slowing down the whole crew and stretching out the work day. And primers, especially the proud ones, were not what you would call a patient, understanding lot. They would literally torment you day in day out if they thought your inexperience or laziness was fucking them over. Dylan had seen people breakdown and cry more than a few times.

Karma was for real in the tobacco field.

When you watched priming from a distance, you saw the machine crawling across the field, the shadows of the five primers beneath, and the sweep of tobacco leaves being flapped into the baggie loaded bins. Priming machines were universally loud, limiting the crew to shouted curses and absurd singing falsettos. At the end of each row everyone would get up, bitch and moan and rub their lower back while the driver turned the machine for the next dive into the field. Then everyone would scramble into their seats, before disappearing back into the shadowy, stinging world of the row. For the first few hours of the morning, the tobacco would be soaked with dew, so that everyone would be decked out in rain gear–anything ranging from garbage bags to expensive construction outfits. Toward the end of the season, the mornings would be so cold you got used to using fingers you couldn’t feel. Unless it was raining, the gear gradually vanished as the morning wore on, first the coats, then the suspenders.

The drier the plants became, the stickier they became. But where the build up of tobacco gum was pretty much an arms and waist down affair while irrigating, topping, or suckering, it was a whole body pain in the ass while priming. Innumerable leaves brushed you while buried in the row. If you didn’t wear a hat, it would harden your hair. No matter what you did, you always seemed to get one cheek gummed. Many wore long-sleeve shirts because your entire arms got gummed. Pretty much everyone rubbed dirt across their hands and clothes to get rid of the spilled-orange juice stickiness. By midafternoon all the primers would be covered in swathes of black from their hats to their heels. With the way the sweat sopped the dust, the whole crew would look like shades, apparitions damned to repeat the same toil over and over in the high afternoon sun.

“Black as a nigger…” Cutter would gripe.

The point of the connection between the fields and the kilns was something called the ‘boat,’ a relic of the days when they used horse-drawn sledges out in the fields. Driving a tractor and trailer, the boat-driver would intercept the priming machine at various intervals as it worked its way across the field, and all the baggies would be loaded on the trailer. The boat-driver, who had the job everybody but everybody envied, would then drive to the kiln-yard, where the girls waited at the tying machine. He would swap out the trailers, replacing the one from his previous circuit with the loaded-down new arrival, then head back out to the fields.

The tying machine was essentially a giant sewing machine. A belt some two feet deep and twelve feet long ran its length. Occupying positions along it, three girls would turn back and forth, taking leaves from the boat and arranging them on the belt ‘butts against the pan’–all the butts had to be even to prevent leaves from falling out when the process was complete. The first girl would be responsible for the ‘bottom.’ She would lay out an even mat of tobacco leaves between pegs set onto the belt. The second girl would finish the bottom, laying a four foot long wooden slat called a tobacco stick across it, then begin the top. The third girl would finish laying the second mat, ideally as thick as the bottom one, completely covering the stick. Then the whole thing would pass under the sewing mechanism, which possessed a needle as long as a steak knife, and the butts of the leaves would be stitched together, so that the bottom and top mats would hang like a skirt from the tobacco slat.

A second conveyor would then carry the “stick” to the “elevator,” which was essentially just a seventeen foot long belt set on stilts and wheels. It would carry a steady stream of sticks, 1275 of them, up into the black maw of the kiln.

Kilns were essentially giant frame boxes, generally sided in green insul-brick and insulated with yellow foam. A broad sheet-metal stack climbed the side opposite the small entry door: this was where the burner and fan cycled the air for curing. The opposing sides sported four broad doors set like windows several feet above ground level, allowing the elevator to bring the tobacco high and deep into the kiln. A series of parallel rungs scaffolded the interior, set just far enough apart that the sticks could span them with their skirts of leaves hanging down in between. Vertically, the rungs were spaced so that the leaves hanging from the rung above would just touch the butts of the leaves on the rung below. The idea was to systematically pack the rungs with tobacco laden sticks, filling the kiln one quarter at a time. Using three boards, the kiln-hanger would use the centre rungs to hang sticks to either side before hanging himself out of a home by filling the middle. Then he would move his boards to the bottommost rung, get the girls to winch the elevator lower, and repeat the process below. When the back quarter was filled, everything–the elevator, the tying machine, and the boat–would have to be pulled out so that he could start the top of the front quarter. When that was filled, everything would have to moved over to the second window, and the second half of the kiln would be likewise filled. The farmer would fire up the burner, the hot air would begin circulating, and the tobacco would spend a week yellowing and drying, transforming turgid green leaves into the lung-blackening tobacco we know and love.

Everything on the farm revolved around filling the fucking kiln. Since everyone was paid per kiln, the workday only lasted as long as the kiln did. On efficient farms with experienced and dependable crews, this could be as early as 1PM. On dysfunctional farms, it could take as long as 8PM.

Tobacco harvest was either easy money, or physical and interpersonal misery.

9

(Present)

Let me guess.

You lay blinking in the morning sometimes. You feel warm, encapsulated. You taste the air you breathe. And for a moment, a lithe and slender moment, the past is nowhere to be found. You find yourself stranded with the tea leaves of the present–all the ambiguity you need to make what you want of your life. You are biblical with possibility.

Just dream, something whispers.

But the memories… They aren’t long in coming, are they? The debts. The obligations. The sins and the lifetime ambitions. The toil to come. It crowds you even as you lay there. Peace becomes immobilization. Birdsong becomes jeers and catcalls. The morning sun becomes a punch clock. You pin your eyes open from the inside, knowing how a blink can slip into slumber. Knowing that time is running out.

Get up, it cries. It, the enemy you have become.

Get. The fuck. Up!

It’s not enlightenment unless you hate it.

10

(1984)

Kiln-hanging possessed a peculiar cache.

Since the kiln-hanger worked with the girls all day long he was either the darling or the scourge. His role made him the de facto manager of half the operation: because he was the one who declared when the elevator and the tying machine needed to be moved, his other declarations seemed to carry the weight of authority as well. Power turns on habit more than love and fear combined.

Since the job had an element of apparent danger, he was considered daring. The good ones would only use three or four two-by-eight boards to span the hanging depths of the kiln. It was like walking across a sidewalk once you got used to it, but for the uninitiated it looked like statistical suicide. Kiln-hangers never stumbled, and people respected that.

Since he was the man who actually packed the kiln, and since the length of the workday depended on how quickly the kiln was completed, he was the place where it all came together. For obvious reasons, primers were always keen to know how far along they had come, so they were always pestering the boat-driver for details, who in turn would continually pester the kiln-hanger. And when the primers came back to the yard for whatever reason, the first thing they typically did was check in on the kiln-hanger. On slow days, the first accusation–no matter how hung-over or stoned or drunk the priming crew might be–was always that the girls were overloading the sticks. So it was a never-ending struggle: the farmer always bitching at the girls to add more leaves to the stick, and the primers always bitching at the girls to use less. The only man who really knew, simply because he hefted each and every stick and actually hung them, was the kiln-hanger. This gave him a peculiar kind of power: Dylan had actually seen impromptu strikes incited by kiln-hangers.

And since the value of the tobacco depended upon how well it was cured, which in turn depended on how well the kiln was hung, farmers tended to be particularly invested in the kiln-hanger as well. A good kiln-hanger could demand 10, sometimes 15, more dollars per kiln. Any farmer who lost his kiln-hanger better pray that one of his primers either had some aptitude or some experience. Primers were simply one among many, as were tying-machine girls. The jobs were straightforward enough that an unlucky niece or a nephew could be drafted in a pinch. Driving boat was so easy, so coveted, that any old asshole could do it, though a farmer usually did well to avoid gossipy, conspiratorial types. But the kiln-hanger, he was the one man who could stop the whole show–and he typically let people know as much. If you ever heard a tobacco farmer complaining about a prima donna, then dollars to donuts he was referring to his kiln-hanger.

He alone possessed the air of the artisan, the slow-blinking reserve of a skilled man among labourers.

This was the role Dylan climbed into the first day of harvest.

11

(Indeterminate)

The light changes in August. The skies inhale the haze. Everything beneath becomes sharp with edge and colour. The dust becomes chalk, puffs beneath your feet like the surface of the moon.

The rows cook in the sun, graphing the distance in corduroy sheets. Green to blue, kindergarten colours, mapping the nitrogen content of the soil beneath.

The ground is expressed in everything, as farmers know.

Short of bulldozers, the earth always has its say.

12

(1984)

Harley refused to look at him. It literally had to stand directly in front of her before she would meet his gaze. She glanced up in manufactured surprise then said, “How’s my tall glass of water?”

“Parched,” Dylan replied, but her eyes had already clicked elsewhere. He suffered that interpersonal version of binocular rivalry where you need someone to be such a way so bad you find yourself witless when they refuse. You want the rabbit, but you keep seeing the duck.

Jerry had coffee and donuts laid out on the picnic table behind his house the morning of the first day. It was dawn chill, and the lawn was white with dew. Everyone walked so as to keep from soaking their sneakers. The kilnyard loomed nearby, the kilns scattered like spilled dice, throwing long shadows across the green. The fields reached out beyond them, braised in white-gold.

After Harley’s rebuff, Dylan stood by himself, fending that all-alone-in-the-world feeling you get the first day of school. There was something brittle in the way his eyes sorted through the milling strangers. Not a breath reached deeper than his clavicle. Since the beginning, he had dreaded this day, not simply because of the mechanized misery to come, but because a good part of his pessimistic soul assumed that everyone would hate him. When I was eleven, Dad had hired it out to a neighbour to work picking pickling cucumbers. I found myself the youngest and far and away the most sensitive kid in a crew of six juvenile delinquents. I spent the next two weeks getting beaten and tormented at work, then getting my ass kicked at home when I begged and pleaded to quit.

It was like a spring had been set in him, forever booby-trapping circumstances filled with strangers. He watched, smiled in the semblance of someone confident when the inevitable hams acted up–every group had someone who loved strangers as much as Dylan hated them. You could look at people you knew, the kind of flat watching that sparked no antagonism or embarrassment, but with strangers you had to take care. You looked without looking, a kind of awkward combination of peeking and open staring. You made bare, almost animal assessments regarding prowess, attractiveness, sociability, and the like. Before you even knew what you were doing, you had decided who to fuck, who to bully, and who to placate.

Cutter, who had been hanging back pretending to be preoccupied with his smoke, finally joined him in his lonely corner. Dylan wanted to be relieved, but his anxiety was such that he wished the man away–if anyone could smell his fear it was Cutter.

“What’s up with her?” the man asked, nodding in the direction of Harley.

Of course he had been watching. All this meant nothing to the man, Dylan realized, meeting the people who would dominate the next seven weeks of his life.

Strangers, friends–it was all the same to Cutter.

“Dunno,” Dylan effortlessly lied. “Ever since that night you fucked me up with that pow-wow weed, she’s been… weird. I think her and Jerry had a couple of fights about me or something.”

Dylan was always surprised by how easy lies came to him, and how stubbornly they refused to let go.

Cutter studied him with that he-shoots-he-scores grin of his. “Sounds like love.”

“Yeah, right… How about you? You ready for the shit–the real shit? Harvest is about to begin, man.”

Cutter shook his head and glanced at God. “Look at these fucking clowns,” he growled as he tossed his smoke to the grass, stepped on it.

For the first time Dylan realized how frightened Jerry appeared as he tried to mix with his new crew: his boyo-face shining with sweat, his eyes never settling on one thing, his hee-hee laugh too sharp, too abrupt. It was strange seeing nerves get the best of someone so physically powerful– a kind of bodily irony. We glimpse weakness in one another all the time, instances that we never quite overlook. A quaver in the voice, an anxious spark in the eyes, or in more rarefied environs, a lapse in reason or memory. Everyone falters at some point, even men like Cutter. But for Jerry to reveal his cracks at this moment, before an audience of untrustworthy eyes, triggered a haze of alarm in Dylan, as well as a background wash of shame and recrimination–the floating feeling that always dogged his gut and limbs when it thought about fucking Harley.

Jerry knew full well that he was floundering: you could see it written on his face. But he had no choice but to force the pantomime. He called everyone around the beaten picnic table. After sucking his cigarette to the nub and tossing it,  he did his best to introduce everybody, but kept confusing names.

“Can you tell this is my first harvest?” he cried in a strained ha-ha tone. Some of the crew smiled, but only Dylan gratified him with a laugh. Wearing a tank beneath her hoody, looking conspicuously slender in her black jeans, Harley watched from several paces back, as expressionless as only a wife could be.

The Mexican Mennonite girls were too timid to look at, let alone speak to anyone. The older one was called Briggetta, a name that would become “Ghetto” within a week. She was one of those women whose doleful expression utterly obscured her good looks. A sort of perpetual devastation lingered in her eyes, as if she were a third grader who’d just been booed off the talent-show stage. The younger one, Alice, had a shy oriental air to her: she was forever blushing, forever looking down and smiling. Everyone would start calling her “Frankenhead” because of the way her kerchief exaggerated the size of her forehead. As Mexican Mennonites, they wore clothes that were only decades, as opposed to centuries out of style. Everyone with the exception of Cutter steered clear them–for Dylan it was as much reflex as anything else, an instinctive appreciation of the cultural abyss that separated them. But there was more than a little bigotry as well: Mexican Mennonites had a strange reputation in those parts at that time. Timid, yet devious in the manner of resentful children. They reeked of old newsreels. You had this vague sense of having seen them naked and hosed down in some Nazi propaganda piece.

The third girl was this blond tart from St. Thomas named Missy. She was the kind of chick that cut her shorts high enough for the pockets to peek below the white-furred fringe. The guys continually complained about the cellulite–or “cheese” as they called it–on the back of her thighs, but that didn’t stop them from watching her ass whenever opportunity afforded. Dylan would hear literally hundreds of Missy comments before the harvest was through, ranging from the crude to the obscene. Of course, like any sentient stone, she knew full well the ripples her dropping sent across the pond. And she was too quick-witted not to love flirting.

Of the two Frenchmen, Gilles and Thierry, only Gilles knew how to speak English. Both were short, lanky in a hands-stuffed-in-your-pockets way. Thierry had one of those zero-fat faces that you would recognize just as easily at 75 as 25. He spent most of his time looking around, grinning as if he thought you were crazy. Gilles seemed to have had inherited Thierry’s missing facial fat: you thought he looked rock-star debonaire at a distance, only to be surprised by the puffy, pasty burnout sitting across from you when you joined him. He was urban and ridiculously proud of the fact, wearing silk shirts and designer jeans that shrink-wrapped his dong. He was given to copping poses with the same cartoon thoughtlessness as Mussolini: he had this ya-ya-they-love-me-in-Montreal look, lazy lids over a bored smirk, that he would cop whenever Cutter or one of the natives knocked him on his verbal ass.

The boat-driver, Kyle, looked like one of those harmless Indians–looked like. His round face beamed peasant humility, and his pudgy torso suggested a comforting sloth. His voice was soft and relatively high-pitched–entirely unsuited for the revolutionary rhetoric he continually spouted. With the exception of the sombrero, he dressed like a back-up for a mariachi band when not in the fields: tight jeans, a belt-buckle big enough to serve appetizers, and various tex-mex button-downs. And he never seemed to quite get the hang of his cowboy boots: the man walked like someone forever stepping over cracks. Within the first week the primers were calling him “Speedy.”

“Arriba, arriba!” they would shout as he tore down the lanes with the boat. “Yip-yip!”

His cousin, Long Tom, looked like one of those dangerous Indians–which, as it turned out, was exactly what he was. With the exception of Cutter, he probably carved Kyle for his ‘White-man rants’ more than anyone else. When it came to oppression he really could give a fuck. “I just stick’m,” he would say, revealing teeth as white and straight as his hair was black and long. And as Kyle would periodically warn the others, he wasn’t kidding: apparently Long Tom had just finished a stint at Kingston for stabbing three guys in a bar fight. He was a big man, about 6’3″ or 6’4″ and at least 250 pounds. He carried a switchblade which was the source of constant friction and consternation: every time Jerry asked him not to bring it out to the field, Long Tom would flash his perfect teeth in a smile and say, “Sure thing, boss,” then bring the thing out anyway.

And then there was Burke, or “Buke” as the others started calling him because he puked pretty much every time he drank. He was one of those guys who continually talked about nothing as though it were a matter of life and death, his eyes pop-bottle wide behind his heavy glasses, his boney hands conducting some unseen orchestra. A native of Red Deer, he liked to go on and on about Alberta as though it were as exotic as China: according to him, everything was different, “Like, in the details, you know? The little things.” The others started riding him from the very beginning, but in a cautious, almost exploratory way. As goofy as Buke could be, the guy possessed a lean-muscled, broad-shouldered frame that positively emanated strength. It was like someone had grafted Jerry Garcia’s head onto the body of an underwear model.

Numbed into silence by the anxiety of their new boss, everyone stood in embarrassed silence after the introductions. Cutter grinned as if the ambient discomfort that tickled everyone’s guts could reach no further than his armpits.

“‘Kay, everybody,” Jerry finally called, a disjoint look in his eyes. “Let’s pick some smokes!”

That morning coffee pretty much stamped the social dynamics that would dominate the farm in the weeks to come. The Frenchmen hated the Indians and the Indians hated the Frenchmen. Everyone except Dylan hated Buke, probably because Buke so haplessly tried to get everybody to like him. Everyone respected Cutter, and they either ignored or liked or were suspicious of Dylan–he would be the odd man out even if he wasn’t stuck at the kilns with the women.

Of course Cutter’s ‘Weirdsma’ tag would stick like a bandaid to hairy skin.

Jerry they whaled on right from the very beginning.

One of the first things Dylan heard Cutter say to the others was: “Only one rule on the cotton farm, boys. Keep your goddamn hands off the massah’s wife.”

13

(Inapplicable)

It always wonders where the line falls when I reflect on events [2] such as this. How much have I captured? How much have I contrived? And the interpretative generalizations I make: How much do they lay bare? How much do they conceal?

The fact that you could spend a lifetime mining nuances from a situation like this is as much a testament to the superficiality of consciousness as it is to our inability to fix our interpretations. On the one hand, we only experience a slender fraction of the events that embroil us–this is simply a neurophysiological and environmental fact. On the other hand, all our retrospective interpretations are thoroughly underdetermined, to the point where there really is no way to definitively arbitrate between them.

An axiom of this… is that there is more, always more.  Always more than can be said, and always more to say. Always more blah, fucking blah, blah, blah.

If there’s one thing that bedevils homo theoreticus it has to be the interpretative ambiguity that plagues considerations of identity and difference, the fact that either identity or difference can be read into any text, any situation, any life. With a little clever language you make any instance of theoretical finding look like an instance of theoretical making, and vice versa. Does Derrida, for instance, discover deconstructive contradictions in texts via careful reading, or does he manufacture deconstructive contradictions by exploiting interpretative underdetermination? (He would say both: theoretical invulnerability requires having things both ways). Does Deleuze, for instance, get to the heart of representational thinking, or does he simply blot it out with his self-erasing conceptualizations?

Has he captured more than he has obscured?

Say you decide to write a plot summary of the Holy Bible. Just how should we describe the relationship between the Bible and your summary of it? If we emphasize the materiality of your summary, then it seems something distinct, post hoc, simply because it’s an empirical object externally related to another empirical object, the Bible. If we emphasize the meaning of your summary, however, then it seems to belong to the Bible to the extent that it seems to repeat the meaning of the Bible. But of course, every repetition is a distinct event, so even if the meaning of your summary seems to repeat the meaning of the Bible, you could still insist that it’s distinct, that it’s more a semantic doppelganger than an instance of semantic transubstantiation. If you wanted to get really “radical,” you could spin the original/repetition dichotomy and suggest that your plot summary is the doppelganger of a doppelganger, a distinct repetition of a distinct repetition. Or if you wanted, you could emphasize the way your summary has conditioned your subsequent readings of the Bible, and suggest that the summary is in fact the original, and that the Bible is the repetition.

You could imagine the study of “emphatics,” the ways in which emphasizing various characteristics at the expense of others generates different theoretical implicatures. All interpretation is emphatic in some sense, simply because it’s always focal: humans simply cannot consider all things at once. Something is always overlooked, and the resulting implicatures are usually transformed when this something is plugged in. This is why there’s no fact of the matter when it comes to the question of difference and identity: because all interpretation is emphatic, and because different emphases generate different implicatures, there is literally no way to grasp the whole as a whole.

The bivalence of identity and difference is just as artificial as the bivalence of truth and falsehood–one of many procrustean compromises built into language–or our impoverished experience of it at least. The issue is always a matter of degree, more or less.

Comparative.

[2] It is becoming.

14

(Inapplicable)

This is easy to see with identity and difference simply because as binaries go, they rank so high on the conceptual food chain. The empty can, as Hetfield says, rattles the loudest.

For a time Dylan was quite taken with Deleuze and his ontological inversions. If concepts possessed backward looking extensions, he would consider forward looking intensions. If becoming was understood as the collapse of the possible into the actual, as privative, then he would argue for an excessive becoming, with actualities exploding from virtualities. Dylan was the first in his class to tackle Deleuze, and certainly the first to challenge his instructors on their interpretations. Deleuze, he discovered, drew a lot of water from the prestige well, especially if no one knew what the fuck you were talking about. You alter your emphases radically enough, and the resulting implicatures become well nigh unintelligible–occult.

This is power in certain circles.

But the problem of interpretative emphasis applies to all theory outside the sciences. And this is why committing to this or that non-empirical implicature is so disastrous: since we assess new claims against the yardstick of our previous commitments, buying into any one implicature binds us to some set of arbitrary emphases. If you have a position, it is literally the case that “feeling right” is your biggest enemy. Of course the logic of competing implicatures are going to strike you as mistaken or downright nonsensical.

All you have to do is “call attention to,” or emphasize, characteristics that competing positions overlook. The social, say, over the symbolic. The linguistic over the natural. The intentional over the functional. The performative over the representational. The different over the identical. You become convincing simply because your text commands the reader’s eye–his or her focus. And if you should be lucky enough to find readers without much exposure to competing implicatures, then, ignorance being invisible, your position is going to seem like the only game in town. And once you’ve snagged their commitments, you can count on the combination of their cognitive shortcomings and interpretative underdetermination to do the rest.

Like clockwork.

This is the reason why deconstruction and other philosophies of difference swept like fire through literary halls, while guttering out in the philosophical. This is why the rise and fall of theoretical schools follows the rhythms of matriculation and retirement, the vectors and velocities of fashion. This why the scruples that govern the distribution of beliefs in literature departments reek far more of status than reason.

This is why my colleagues are always counting the leaves. Too many. Too few.

And nothing gets cured in the end.

15

(Inapplicable)

So what are we to make of my reminiscences? Do they capture, or do they obscure? Are they fictions, or are they reports?

Do I speak in windows or in CGI?

Whether we like it or not, we generally experience words as windows. Our native habit is to take descriptions at face-value, to simply assume that identity trumps difference where language is concerned. We generally read to believe, as far as description goes.

The  neurophysiological mechanisms that underwrite language use lie outside the information horizon of the thalamocortical system, for one. As a result, our words not only come to us as ‘given,’ they seem to hang in experience with the things they signify: a magical relationship that philosophers and others like to call “reference.”

We cannot quite see ourselves as something articulated through chronological time, for another. Since the thalamocortical system cannot track the time of its tracking, consciousness hangs in timelessness the way our visual field hangs in oblivion. Though time passes in experience, there is a peculiar sense in which it cannot pass for consciousness. The occluded frame of experience hangs in oblivion: this is why this… is always here and Now, why today is always the first day of the rest of your life, and why Nancy could not believe that old age had claimed her.

This is what makes the performative dimension of language so difficult to intuit: since words transport our very frame, we, like Captain Kirk in “The Mark of Gideon,” are oblivious to any transportation. Our frame remains motionless, and our words arise as given, so it seems that language simply presents the world ‘from nowhere,’ which is to say, as it is regardless of perspective.

It speaks as truth.

16

(Inapplicable)

This is why interpretations that emphasize the performative dimension of language strike us as ‘radical’ (it certainly struck Dylan that way). It’s not the way things seem.

After taking the performative turn, any number of philosophical implicatures suggest themselves. Language becomes an efflorescence, meaning paratactically piled upon meaning. Language becomes an instrumentality, a fundamental exercise of social power. Or, if you refuse to relinquish the experience of transparency, language becomes contradiction, a performance that simultaneously, aporetically constructs and reveals.

Given that the thalamocortical system only has fractional access to the environmental and neurophysiological mechanisms behind language–and moreover, fractional access that it mistakes for complete access–theorizing about language from our experience of it is bound to generate any number of errors. This problem is far more profound than the problem of hypostatization, the tendency of reflection to transform lived processes into autonomous products. Hypostatization is simply an instance of what is in fact a larger theoretical dilemma. Since this… is focal, it can attend only to fractions. Since the frame of this… is occluded, it tends to see those fractions as self-contained wholes: words start to seem like things rather than moments. The resulting implicature turns on the relationality characteristic of discrete objects.

But even if you “correct” for hypostatization, the fact remains you’re just another blind swami confusing trunks for snakes and legs for trees. And given this, philosophies of language that emphasize difference become difficult to understand. If you want to explain what language is within experience, it becomes hard to see what justifies critiques of identity–transparency–for this is precisely how language appears. If you want to explain what language is outside of our experience of it, then naturalism is the only remotely viable alternative, our only tested means of theoretically groping the great elephant.

And as of yet, the neurophysiology defeats us.

The fact is we have no bloody clue what language is. But we should brace ourselves for the possibility that the fact of language, whatever it is, will be less than friendly to the experience.

And more ‘radical’ than anything the Metaphysicians of Difference could dream.

17

(1984)

With the exception of Cutter, who continued to drive back and forth from St. Thomas, the primers all bunked in the barn opposite the house, which put a devastating crimp into Dylan’s plans of repeating his night with Harley. Ever since that night, the line between his memories and his fantasies had collapsed. Remembering became planning, and vice versa. Not a night would pass without him aching in bed, as turgid as tobacco in the rain, clutching himself in bizarre mix of celebration and frustration. I fucked her! he would think. I fucked Harley! Words exquisite in their crudity. Not only had he fucked Harley, he had made her cum three times. Three! A kind of inner cackle accompanied this thought, a glee that would come to seem squalid in later years. And inevitable.

How could he not gloat? How could he avoid transforming her into a kind of carnal proof, a trophy he could display to all subsequent versions of himself? Remember? Remember?

She writhed on you, brother. She screamed

He was only 17. There’s poetry, profound poetry, in a fuck fantasy when you’re 17. A single transcendent note that Harley had transformed into a symphony. The desire he experienced was well-nigh bottomless.

As was the loathing.

The first few days of harvest proper were predictably hellish, given the inexperience of the crew both in the field and at the kiln. What Dylan hadn’t predicted was that Jerry would spend so much time with him in the kiln, jawing on and on about this and that. He said he was there “to help with the leaves.” When the girls on the tying machine were frazzled or otherwise didn’t know what they were doing, they had a hard time getting all the leaf butts flush, which meant not all the leaves would be threaded by the tying machine, which meant that a small shower of leaves would falling spinning to the dirt floor each time Dylan lifted a stick with its skirt from the elevator and gave it a quick shake. These leaves could add up very quickly, to the point where they matted the entire floor, and it could take the better part of an hour cleaning them up at the end of the day.

Jerry said he was there to keep on top of the leaves, but it seemed that he was more interested in hiding. When he caught up with the leaves he would saunter out in his big-man reckless-walking way and cry, “Howzzz it goin, girlzzzz?” They would smile or laugh or make faces or whatever, and Jerry would reluctantly amble to his truck–Dylan could almost feel the man willing himself out to the belligerent fields.

He continually referenced Dad, as though reminding Dylan that their connection transcended whatever it was brewing on the farm. For the most part, Dylan didn’t know what to say. Since things were moving so slowly, he had the leisure to think or say anything he wanted. He would grab the stick off the elevator, give it a shake so that the veils of stitched leaves hung firmly on the stick. Then he would step, one-two-three, into the darker regions, add it like another slice of bread to those already hung. Back and forth over neck-breaking spaces. The rung-bisected emptiness would bend and wheel in brightening parallax below the shadows of his boards.

They talked a lot about AC/DC: Jerry pretended to be scandalized by Dylan’s low opinion of For Those About to Rock. They discussed who [3] would be more important to the future of rock, Sabbath or the Stones. Everything was kickass this and kickass that, getting fucked up and kicking that puppy down. They joked about Missy’s ass. They talked about Harley, how great she was, how much she hated living on the farm.

They had these strange periods where they prefaced pretty much everything they said with, “Yeah…” speaking from a place that was as bored as it was peaceful.

“Yeah,” Jerry said, “about what happened that night… You know, when we were all fucked up on Cutter’s weed?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, well, I just want you to know that I’m sorry about that. I really am sorry. I was fucking stoned, man.”

“Yeah… I know. You just fucked up in a people way the way I fucked up with the valve. Turned right when you should have turned left.”

An appreciative laugh. “Yeah… That’s a good way to put it.”

“Yeah.”

Sometimes, when the girls beat the boat or the tying machine needed to be rethreaded, Dylan would stare down, shake his head at the image of this giant man sitting like a kid in the dirt, patiently picking and stacking leaves. A cold sweat would strike him, a guilt unlike any he had felt since I drowned that mouse in the mud puddle when it was eight. Sometimes, working with half an ear out for Jerry’s rambling, Dylan caught himself thinking that it wasn’t such a bad thing, the way Harley seemed bent on ignoring him.

Jerry needed her. There was room enough for love in that.

When you hang in the high gloom, everything is illuminated from below.

[3] It assumes it is immobile, self-identical. Now.

Light, Time, and Gravity (IV)

by rsbakker

You only scrub viruses from your skin.

X

(Childhood)

Dishevelled. That is how I feel. That is how I am.

“So… Who next?”

Disorganized.

“What about this one?”

I can barely remember what it’s like, living in an environment that enabled. Being in love.

“Simmons? I don’t know… What’s she doing again?”

Disapproval is a funny thing. We’re always checking, always calibrating, between the frames of what we call awareness. What you see looks good enough, workable, but it really doesn’t matter, so long as the subtext continually condemns and repudiates. So you blunder forward oblivious, and the frame of what you are shrinks, withdraws.

“Umm… Post-feminist critiques of Marxist body art.”

“I think she’s brilliant.”

[Reading]. “Ah… The Benjamin messianic thing… with the… What does she call it?”

“Spiked heel. It’s a fascinating concept, believe it or not.”

You want to ‘pull it together.’ But what do you do? Apart is what you are, what you’ve always been. Pull who together? What I am? Pull what I am together? But then who would I be?

“I know you like it.”

“What’s not to like?”

She’s always angry, now. You know all the mechanisms, how it works. You’ve become the topic of a college essay, and she’s been trained to cherry-pick what she needs from the mixed bag of your life, how to select the most sympathetic jurors, bribe the judge. She only sees what she needs to convict you now. You used to share the same skull, understand and appreciate the common will that once bound you. But you’re a stranger to her now. All you have are your actions to redeem you, and she can only see the fault in what you do.

“For my part? Nothing. But this is SHHRC we’re talking about.”

The fix is in. And this, you begin to realize, is the most pernicious fact of all. The fucking fix.

“Patrice told me that ‘conservative’ is the wor–”

You know the feeling. The taste. The heft of your head. The weight of your hands. You understand how the whole world can become a chore, the make-work sadism of petty fathers and heartless governments.

“Patrice? Your buddy in Ottawa?”

How even a soul’s resting position can become labourious.

“He just said that, um, optics will be important.”

This is what the fix does to you. The exhausting immobility. The waiting for a second wind that only seems to come. This is what the fix does to you.

He literally told you that?

When I was that age when the colour of the Smartie trumped the taste, strings connected me to my father’s anger. Hooks through the armpits. The throat.

“What does it matter? We knew as much going in. It’s human nature. They’re going to shy from projects that can be… what? [Laughs]. What’s the word I’m looking for?”

My mother had this way of crying, my way, that I found unforgivable. Crying reveals so much–too much–about the worm that is our nature.

“Weaponized.”

Sometimes Dad would pound the dinner table for emphasis. His version of italics. It was like poking a fork into an outlet, the jolt of alarm. Strange the way everything jumps: forks, plates, glasses, limbs, hearts. You always pound two tables, when your family is gathered around you: one in the room and one in the head.

[Laughter].

My flinch would taste like copper.

“Oh well. Sorry, Simmons.”

My mother had this way of crying, like I said. She understood the fix we were in.

“Okay… One down. What about this Took, guy?”

Sooner or later me and Johnny would start crying too.

“He’s the one who even looks like a hobbit, isn’t he?”

Dad would pretend to be dumbfounded. “Guys… Aw… c’mon, guys. There’s no need for you–”

[Laughter].

“You’re scaring them, Frank!”

“It’s the eyes. He has the most beautiful eyes–have you ever noticed that?”

“Guys?” he would exclaim, his head wobbling, a kind of you-got-me-all-wrong smile on his face.

“What’s his project again?”

Whiskey or beer. It always smelled the same. Like phoney smiles.

“Something about Schelling…”

Sudden Old Testament indignation. “So I’m the bad guy, huh?”

German Idealism and mass media portrayals natureHe’s the one who published that essay on Avatar.”

This would send a different kind of jolt through me. You become a connoisseur of self-pity when you live in captivity, all the modes and variations, and the kinds of consequences that flowed from each.

“Yeah-yeah. I remember… He actually got that in the CJFS, right?”

“I’m the Big. Fucking. Loser, eh?”

“Forthcoming.”

There was always this moment of transition, expressions crawling from mire to mire.

“I’m sure they’ll approve of ‘German’ in the title.”

“Huh? Huh? Who do you think! Put this fucking food! On this table!

[Laughter].

How do you ‘capture’ something like this? That feeling of inversion, the slow implosion of composure. Your mother wilting, becoming another abused child. The sobbing interior peeling outward, sheathing you in gleaming shame. Your father a bastion of shadow and fury. Teeth of flint. Fists of stone. And your heroic little brother spitting outrage through snot, daring what you could never do, bawling defiance, shrieking I-hate-you-I-hate-you-I-hate-you. And all you want to do is shut him up, because you know the animal now staggering to its feet. The existential bellow. The rude outrage. The musk of domination.

“So we’re agreed, then?”

He stands, a teetering Dark Lord.

“I think so… Dylan?”

You know the irrelevance of justice. The only thing that matters about vengeance is visibility.

“Dylan?”

So your little brother shrieks hatred, and you shield your face behind your arms. You don’t have to commit any crime to be the least innocent.

“Yes?”

I am the Law. This is the message he holds in his strangling grip.

“You liked Took, didn’t you? This stuff is right up your alley.”

And there is beauty even in this. A glimpse through the window of a rural hovel, sweat-stain gold and the gleam of second-hand things, the great father standing in judgement, the mother and children cringing below. The upraised hand–

“Sure.”

A little boy struck, so hard his chair tips backward. And you glimpse his face, distorted for a warble in the window pane. You see him vanish into the fog of your exhalation.

“Good, Hobbit genes, huh? What do you call them?”

The one too terrified to break the Law.

“Fitness indicators.”

There is beauty even in this.

[Laughter].

89

(1984)

The Dodge was gone when Dylan pulled up to the house. The windows were dark save for blue pins of light creasing the livingroom curtains. Somebody watching TV.

He tried hard not to think what he was thinking, went to the side door off the kitchen, rapped his distorted reflection across the screen door. Moths spiraled into the bare bulb hanging above. Even though the night was cool, it smelled of dust and vegetation wilting in the sun.

He waited, listened to the moth tink-tink-tink through the whine of nocturnal insects. He sensed movement in his house. He knocked again, watched his reflection blur with each impact.

He glimpsed Harley’s silhouette pass across the white counter-top light.

“He’s gone,” she said as she pulled open the door. The smell of her steamed into the cooler outdoor air. “And he didn’t leave you a cheque, I’m afraid.”

“Oof,” Dylan replied. “Cutter’s not going to be happy.”

She studied him for a moment. “Who do you think he’s out drinking with?”

Dylan smiled ruefully–or tried to. “No way.”

He had expected some kind of in-spite-of-herself laugh, but instead she cocked her head and peered at him. Something was wrong–he knew this instantly, but the fact of her presence had struck him too vividly. Her mussed hair. Her cotton dress, which seemed lay across her as lightly as a doily on polished wood.

“Why do you like him?” she asked.

“Cutter?”

“Cutter.”

Dylan shrugged. “He makes me laugh. He’s a character.”

A strange softness mellowed her eyes. For the first time Dylan noticed that her mascara had smeared, charcoal against freckled white. A shudder passed through him when he realized she’d been crying.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Sure. I’m watching a creepy movie. Little Girl who Lived Down the Lane…” She trailed, waved a dismissive hand at her own stupidity. “Something like that. The neighbour just threw her hamster into the fireplace.”

“Sounds more crispy than creepy.”

She made a face, batted her eyes as she laughed. Somehow the time they had spent on the couch weeks earlier had managed to creep into the empty space between them. A thickness of some kind, like promise or sin.

“Would you like to watch the rest of it with me?”

He said, “Sure,” over a tripping heart.

She led him into the dark kitchen, asked him if he wanted a drink.

“Sure,” he said, trying to sound relaxed and lighthearted. He watched her root through the fridge. People are never the same size in there homes. Sometimes they fill them to the point where rooms seem little more than baggy clothes, extensions of their character. But other times, especially at night, the spaces grow as long as shadows, and people find themselves dwarfed. The shelter leaks out of the walls. Homes become houses, shells.

Harley seemed small and naked in this place, like a little girl in a dead mother’s clothes. It was the kind of kitchen you might find in any rural rental at the time. Linoleum floor cracked and gnawed around the door. Old boots and shoes and sandals assembled along a section of old carpet. Plain cupboards beaded with yellowing paint. A table with a brushed aluminum rim. Five warped chairs. A dozen empty cases of Labatt Blue piled next to the fridge–which of course was harvest green.

There was something about it all–an impoverished utility perhaps–that promised to swallow any ornament, to make a sham of any attempt to decorate. It seemed Harley should be covered with bruises.

She poured him a Coke with ice-cubes, then led him smiling into the livingroom. There was a dank odour, the smell of beaten sofas and walls that had outlived the fragrance of plaster and wood. The TV flashed and glittered soundlessly.

The pillows and tangled blanket told him she had been laying on the couch to the left, so he took the one to the right, with the yellow foam bulging from the centre cushion.

“No.” She said with faux off-hand resolution. “Let’s sit like we did the other night… I liked that.”

“Sure.”

The fact that neither of them needed clarification–”Which night was that? How was it we sat again?”–said it all. They effortlessly recreated their earlier pose, Dylan at the sofa’s right arm, Harley leaning against him facing the fish-tank light of the TV. For some reason, the only thing that made it seem strange–illicit–was the absence of Johnny Carson on the screen. If they could only recreate the circumstances perfectly, it seemed, they could recapture the innocence. They needed an accident and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, accidental here.

Her head felt warm against his shoulder, like that of a drowsy niece or nephew. Her dark hair tangled down about his arm, tingling more than tickling.

“Oops, commercial,” she said girlishly. She bounced to her feet saying, “Pee break…”

He sat staring at the television, anxious, soaking in the details of the room. Three empty beer bottles conferred by the far leg of the other coffee table. A lighter and a pack of Cameos sat next to a black glass astray on the table at his knees, as well as half a KitKat, a silver bracelet and gold ring. It seemed he could see her watching these things during muted commercial breaks, the little landmarks that testified to her existence, the kinds of clues police investigators could use to reconstruct the final moments of her life.

Harley.

Then she was back, hurrying as if evading his gaze.

She curled her feet beneath her, reached forward to retrieve the remote, then leaned her head against his shoulder. Her movements were brisk, offhand in a pretend way. They sat breathing, staring at the still-muted screen. And just like before, he was arched and aching-hard, the head of his prick thumbing past the band of his briefs, partially pressing his left jeans pocket inside out.

She finally hit the volume. A Ford commercial tumbled across the screen. Giant loads mastered. Big wheels snacking on mud.

“I got a chill,” she said. He looked at her, bewildered and dismayed, certain that she was fishing for reasons to back out of whatever it was they were pretending not to do.

“Here,” she said, standing before the TV screen. He glimpsed the slender outline of her hips and thighs through the cotton of her dress, quickly looked up into her eyes. “You stretch out against the back of the couch,” she said. Dylan obliged, could not help but notice her eyes briefly follow his tented groin.

She lowered a single knee to the centre cushion, hesitated, her eyes searching his.

“Do you mind if we cuddle?” she asked.

Her voice was so small, so far from the smokey brashness that was her daylight voice, that Dylan almost thought she was mimicking some comedy thing. When she blinked, two tears slipped down her cheeks. She smiled in embarrassment, sniffled and wiped at her face and nose with her wrist. “Sorry,” she said, her voice meek with self-condemnation.

Dylan smiled from a spark of confidence he never knew he had, a small fire of masculine assurance that would gutter out in my late thirties. “It’s okay,” he said. “We’re friends, right?”

She smiled in turn. “Friends,” she repeated, finding courage in him. She sat on the centre cushion, grabbed the blanket from where it had been bunched near Dylan’s feet, then stretched across her narrow half of the couch. Contact was unavoidable, but several slow-thumping heartbeats passed before she finally leaned into him.

She gasped, swallowed, pretended to cough. His hard-on crossed the cleft of her buttocks at an angle. Even through denim, it seemed he could feel her every pore, everything down to the aura of fine hairs.

They lay like this for several minutes.

Her hands were shaking when she reached beneath the blankets, then back to undo his button and unzip his fly. Both of them kept their eyes fixed on the floating TV screen the entire time. She fumbled several times, but when she got it, the action was effortless. He instinctively leaned into her plying fingers, but instead of grabbing him, she hooked the band of his underwear and, squirming for leverage, yanked it down to his scrotum.

The sudden lack of constraint, the douse of cool air. Empty space had become the labial deep.

“Friends,” she murmured thickly, hoisting her skirt to her waist beneath the blanket. Somehow he already knew she wasn’t wearing any panties.

Skin against electric skin.

She clutched him at the root, pulled him away from his abdomen while opening her knees. A soft slap, and he was curved between her legs, along the fiery length of her wetness to the soft fur of her pubis.

She sobbed, once–twice.

They lay like this for several minutes.

Breathing had become difficult, pained and laboured. The figures on the blue screen were a blur, but the miniature voices seemed painfully distinct. He could feel their sweat soaking, meeting in the interstices between skin and clothes.

He wasn’t sure when it happened, or who was even responsible, but somehow the angle of his hips to her buttocks shifted, his glans sunk across a moist track of hair, and he seemed to simply rise up into her.

A blessed accident.

She was gasping and grinding Now. Small cries. Curious little grunts. With his left hand he seized her hip, tried to pin her motionless against him. With his right hand he reached under her and around, reached into her dress to grab her left breast. She choked and bucked at this, and somehow the movement put him beneath her. Her hair tumbled against the side of his face. He watched her raise her swaying knees, felt her socked heels drag along his shins to his knees. The blue blanket slid down her blue thighs, became a crumpled mini, an emanating line falling just short. He reached over her waist with his left arm, trying in vain to clamp her still. At the same time he pinched her left nipple.

She cried out.

This entire time his cock had been an exquisite vessel, precariously balanced, brimming with the ache to spill. It seemed all the world buzzed and squeezed about the hook of him, that here was the one place where it all plugged in.

“Ima gunna…” she rasped, writhing and writhing against him. “Ima… Ima… Ooooh jesus-fuck…”

Voice. Spoken words. Strangely, absurdly, he realized he was fucking Harley–Harley!

He released her breast with his right hand, reached down over the blanket hem, down into the humming space between her inner thighs. He pressed shuddering fingers against the slickness he found there, felt one of his fingernails nip the shaft of his cock.

She began howling, “Oooo! Oooo! Ooooh!

And the delirium–aching, strangling–that arched within him blurred into her, into her pussy, into her squirming torso, her rigid legs, the hand she had thrown back to palm his cheek.

Into her keening.

Into the anguished spasm that was her breath.

All of it was there, all of her, stamped into the hot clay of his bliss.

She was his. He was fucking Harley and she was his.

90

(Indeterminate)

What is this that reaches within us? What is this decadent limb?

A beautiful morning. Children trudging down the sidewalk, the strong, the weak. Some eyes up, voices warbling, shimming along the edge of laughter. Some eyes down, filing their soles on concrete, silent.

Which one was me?

Even then they were telling me. But instead of Homer or trickster tales, they told that I was special, that I could be whatever I wanted to be if only I tried hard enough. They said there was a hero within me, that I could be Achilles, that I need only work to set him free–and work, and work, and work.

I was a point, they said, on the cusp of innumerable trajectories. My every decision, my every effort, collapsed clouds of probabilities (only Deleuzean virtualities would set me free!).

They told me nothing of path dependency. I had to discover that for myself when he was 14.

They taught me nothing of critical thinking. Asking questions willy-nilly, they said, was more than enough.

They told me to aspire. (Breathe-godamn-you-breathe!)

And here I am, reaching, my fingers numb for the cold, my tendons crooked for the lack of grasping.

What is this that reaches through us?

91

(1984)

She fell motionless, began softly crying. As gently as he could, he rolled her to his right so that they could resume their previous positions.

He breathed deep the scent of her hair-conditioner. He found himself nuzzling her hair, kissing her shoulder where the strap of her dress indented her skin. She tasted of salt. “Shhh,” he murmured. “We’re just friends, watching TV.”

He could feel her body shake for a little while longer, against his chest, but mostly through his engorged centre. He whispered, “Shhh…” through the course of her calming, and it seemed that even in this her body answered him.

After a time she bent her head around to look at him askance. The memory of her face–her hair a tangled picture frame, her eyes ringed in mascara bruises, her lips swollen about the edges of glistening teeth, her cheek soft and blue and close enough to make his lips tingle–that memory shines within me still.

A small, cold cube.

“Did you?” she asked with little girl shyness.

“Shhh. I’m trying to watch TV.”

He had no clue what was even on.

“But…”

“I just want to lay like this for a bit.”

She pivoted back to the TV–a Colgate commercial. After a moment of indecision, she snuggled backward, smearing the hot puddle between them, firmly enough to remind them both of how hard he was hooked through her. His cock had become a totem it seemed, a charm against the real. Somewhere he was aware that his car was clearly visible in the driveway, that at any moment someone might decide to “pop by” to see what “Harl and Jerry” were up to. At some level he understood that Harley was more than a shining form about a burning nucleus. He knew that she was more than her body or her cries. She was a wife

But none of this mattered, it seemed, so long as he stayed plugged in. They had found stasis, two brains locked in the parallel flare of pleasure centres.

Centres encompassing centres–moving as slow as bubbles in oil–or mud.

The long ache of his cock sustained them through an entire rerun of Gilligan’s Island. The trivial talk about who was funnier than who, the impressions of Thurston Howell III, the gut-kicking laughter–everything found itself reflected across the fact of her parsed vulva and his parsing erection. The pretense of television friendship became a kind of petting, a stationary thrust and grind, tantric for its duration. Pleasure soaked up all motion, every little scratch and fidget, every sound and glimpse and smell. The world came to them strained.

She lay spooned against him on a shabby couch. In the humid murk beneath blankets, his cock reached out from the sodden wrinkles of his fly up between her buttocks and into her–deep into her.

And instead of moving, they pretended. They made believe…

Interlocked. A mingling of earthen lights.

Her voice thickened, and the tempo of the game slowed. She started cheating.

It began during the commercials, the accidental shifts and squirms. Soon the talk became excuses to exhale. Then he was gripping her naked hip once again, fighting to hold her still.

This time she kicked up on top of him, and he gave up fighting altogether, content to let her thrust and ride. He threw off the blanket, bunched her dress up around her throat, ran his fingers along the swallow curve of her tits, pinched her pink nipples.

Her second climax was longer in coming, but more intense.

This time she did not cry, but simply lay heaving, naked in his clothed embrace.

“Ooooh my fucking Gaaaawd,” she finally moaned. She squeezed her legs, testing his hardness. She gazed at him with eyes that blurted disbelief. “You still haven’t, have you?” she said.

“No,” he murmured, still stuck in her, a rod holding its breath, stubborn and gluttonous. It seemed the most natural thing in the world holding her inside and out, as if she had been born in his captivity. “I don’t want to,” he said thickly.

“Please. I want you to. I need you to…”

He cleared his throat. Watched her, his eyes aglow with anxious pride–and far too many things aside. “I can,” he said raggedly. “It’s like I’ve been standing on the edge of a cliff. Like… all I have to do is say, ‘Yes,’ and… step… and it’ll just… happen.”

“Say it,” she said, once again thrusting against him. A lazy flutter seized her eyes.

He swallowed. “No… no. Be still. Still. Very still.”

She stopped. “Good grief you’re so hard,” she gasped. She bit her lip and said, “I can feel your pulse. I can actually… feel it. Jeeesus.”

They lay breathing, one powerful heart thumping between them. Dylan heard himself moan. She began keening under her breath. “Touch me,” she whispered. “Touch…”

He touched, wondered that he could carry her passion in a trembling left hand.

Kiss me…”

He kissed her, and it seemed that some circuit had been closed between lips and genitals and fluttering fingertips, that the last of the lightening had been bottled, and they could flare with greater light. They cried into each others mouths. Spasms rocked him. His boundaries reared within her, strained and strained, then burst…

Their writhing became twitches. Their cries trailed into winded gasps.

She almost burst out laughing in amazement. “I could feel it. I could really feel it!” Then she was kissing him, stroking his hair, whispering, “You’re so beautiful, soooo beautiful,” over and over.

92

(1984)

He knew what she was afraid of.

She began with a friendly furiousness. At one point she even began pushing him into the kitchen.

He resisted with jokes. He wasn’t finished pretending.

Then she said things mildly. She flashed him a squinty smile, the kind you use to tell people they’ve squandered what’s left of your patience.

Eventually he found himself backing away from his reflection in the screen door, the gravel creaking beneath his heels. He could see her face, stripped of all pretense, watching him from the reflected apparition of his chest. His smile had become slippery, hard to hold. He lifted his cap and bowed like an idiot.

It should seem like a movie, he thought.

When he looked back up, she was gone.

Just like a movie… or even better, a book.

Affairs are the dragons of literature.

93

(Indeterminate)

There was a truth to her face, as feminine as breasts or hips or scolding smiles. Something bigger than beauty, smaller than honesty.

Harley was a poor farm girl. She grew up with rattling windows, spiders on the ceiling, and dogshit in the backyard. Her doll clothes were dirt-stained, her knees were coltish and scabbed, and she continually ran out of clean underwear. She laid her cheek on the kitchen table when she wrote or drew. She bawled before school dances, felt more shame for her parents than for her sins, and was fingered in her uncle’s barn when she was fifteen.

She had been more eager than willing.

She partied through highschool, smoked dope, blew supers to boys she liked, puked at the side of gravel roads. She got conceited when drunk–she even intentionally started a fight by flirting with two boys, but only once. Afterward, she said, “Ohmigawd! I’m. Such. A bitch!” to her girlfriends, and they laughed so hard they cried.

None of this prevented her from making straight A’s. All she wanted to do was please her teachers, even the ones she hated. They all seemed to be real in a way she never felt.

University changed her life–or so she always told herself. At the very least, it gifted her with the sad smile she used to greet her mom and dad. She graduated with a literature degree, then moved back home to marry the boy who had fingered her–the star offensive tackle on the football team. Even though she would never admit it to herself, that, in the end, was precisely the kind of girl she was.

The one who marries the offensive tackle.

And here she had thought she was better

19

(Present)

Like everyone else you call yourself open–‘critical.’ But like everyone else you are anything but.

You have a statistical tendency to mistake agreement for intelligence. You have a statistical tendency to think anything that exceeds you comprehension is excessive. When a signal passes beyond your frequency range, your reflex is to blame the transmission.

Language is competition–it wouldn’t own the planet otherwise.

So before we reap what we have sown, let’s get this one thing straight…

We all read to win.

Light, Time, and Gravity (III)

by rsbakker

That we’re all Mormons all the time, whether we want to be or not.

56

(Inapplicable)

Linguistic communication requires that the brain translate its own processes into an auditory signal. It requires meta-circuits, superordinate processors capable of making portions of the brain’s nonlinear processing available for linear coding–for speech.

Sounds cool. Everything containing the word ‘meta’ sounds cool. But the problem is that not all ‘metas’ are equal. You’re living proof that the brain ain’t all that good at tracking and condensing its own processes. Neural self-tracking doesn’t possess much of an evolutionary pedigree, for one; it’s a jury-rigged solution to a whole kettle of environmental fish–and it shows. The brain is also hardwired to itself, which means that it cannot sample its internal environment in the variable way it can its external environment. It’s literally welded to a single, parochial perspective. But perhaps most importantly, the amount of processing invested in tracking and condensation paradoxically increases the amount of processing that goes untracked and uncondensed. If you grow a second brain to track your original brain (which is kind of what humans have done in a retail and distributed manner–grown little secondary mini-brains like mushrooms), you will need a third to track the second, a fourth to track the third, and so on and so on.

The brain is the one environmental feature that it cannot adequately integrate into its cognitive schema. Small wonder, then, it has so much difficulty placing itself in its environment, that it cooks up ‘minds’ and ‘souls,’ things that refuse to fit the various molds used by its far more ancient and powerful environmental processors.

Things that refuse to die.

Brains are constitutively blind to themselves. They never quite know what they’re doing because they never quite know what’s doing the doing.

The same as us.

57

(Present)

Thus this

Thus all the occulted and incompatible interpretations of this… The dreary parade of philosophical thats.

Thus Dylan’s criminal insensitivity.

Thus Shelley.

58

(1994)

He played a lot of poker while at the University of Toronto.

At one particular game, which took place before the hysterical popularity of Texas Hold’em, he met a philosophy PhD student (of Russian Hutterite extraction) from Calgary who was also an avowed nihilist. Given his own heathen past, Dylan took it upon himself to convert the poor fool. So he launched into an account of his own sorry history and how he had been saved by Heidegger and the ontological difference.

The nihilist listened to him carefully, interrupting only to clarify this or that point with astute questions. Then, after Dylan had more or less burned through his batteries, the nihilist asked, “You agree that science clearly implies nihilism, right?”

“Of course.”

“Well… it’s kind of inconsistent, isn’t it?”

“What’s inconsistent?”

A thoughtful bulge of the bottom lip. “Well, that despite the fact that philosophy hasn’t resolved any matter with any reliability ever, and, despite the fact that science is the most powerful, reliable, theoretical claim-making institution in human history,  you’re still willing to suspend your commitment to scientific implications on the basis of prior commitments to philosophical claims about science and this… ontological difference.”

Tortured syntax aside, Dylan understood exactly what the nihilist meant: Why believe Heidegger when you could argue anything in philosophy?  He had read enough by Now to know this was the only sure thing in the humanities. It was an uncomfortable fact: outside the natural sciences there was no way short of exhaustion or conspiracy to end the regress of interpretation.

Nevertheless, he found himself resenting that bottom lip–almost as much as the predatory grin that replaced it.

“I don’t follow.”

“Well,” the nihilist said, making one of those pained correct-me-if-I’m-wrong faces, “isn’t that kind of like using Ted Bundy’s testimony to convict Mother Theresa?”

“Um,” Dylan replied, his voice pinched in please-no resignation… “I guess?”

The nihilist smiled and shrugged, the way philosophers are prone when they sense the diminishing marginal utility of an exchange. Besides, why should he care? It wasn’t like my disagreement meant anything…

“Give it time,” he said, nodding.

“Time?”

“The stuff you believe in, you know, your intellectual ecosystem? I suppose it seems indestructible now, but only because science has nothing concrete to say about your subject matter–you know, subjectivity and the soul and all that crap.”

“That crap, eh?”

“Sorry. But the only reason you guys can go on the way you do is simply because there’s nothing observational to call you to account. You can just speculate and speculate–human psychology does the rest! For centuries you’ve been doing it, living in your little intentional wildlife preserve, playing the old game in the old ways while poo-pooing the ways science was revolutionizing the world around you.” He paused to take an aristocratic drag on his smoke. “That’s all coming to an end.”

“Say again?”

“The black box of the soul has been cracked open.”

“You mean neuroscience?” Dylan said in his best c’est ridicule tone. “That’s just more phrenology.” Dylan found himself struggling to remember Hegel’s infamous critique of the pseudoscience. The mental couldn’t be naturalized, could it? As a matter of principle…

I mean, if Hegel said so…

The guy rolled his eyes to the ceiling. Phrenology! What a card

“Yeah. Sure. Phrenology that can make the deaf hear and the blind see!” His cigarette pinched between his teeth, he laughed as if Dylan had cracked a joke. “The autopsy has already begun, Dude. Sooner or later, you’ll see…”

He bent his neck as if limbering up for a squash game.

“You guys are all working in a morgue.”

59

(1984)

Depending on the weather, topping and suckering can either start several weeks following irrigation, or blur into it. You “top” when the tobacco begins to flower. This involves walking through the fields row by row, snapping off the heads of the plants to either side of you, effectively neutering them. Once you’ve topped the entire crop, the plants respond by growing “suckers,” secondary stems that branch out from the crease where the broadening leaves meet the stem. Typically the farm owner or share-cropper or manager will whisk through the fields on high-seated sprayer, blowing a chemical that smells like cancer across the plants. It gathers in the aforementioned creases and burns the nascent sucker while they’re still little nubs. Since it’s never 100% effective, and since the chemical is useless once the suckers reach a certain size, you need “suckerers,” usually a pair of them, to walk through the fields, row by row, to snap off the suckers manually.

The whole point of topping and suckering is too keep the tobacco on task, to focus all its metabolic activity on growing giant puckered leaves saturated with nicotine. Like pretty much everything in tobacco cultivation, topping and suckering are shit work.

You did it during the dog days of July, for one. The plants were already armpit high, so it was like walking through a giant wind sponge–stultifying. Pop, pop, this plant on the left, then that one on the right, pop, pop, pop, over and over, on and on. Meanwhile the leaves pressed past you, a million rubbery turnstiles, each leaving a sticky residue on your skin and clothes. The same with your finger and palms. Since the stickiness was intolerable, most people purposefully rubbed dirt across it–within an hour or two you were covered with a second skin of black ‘tobacco gum.’ The mosquitos might get you slapping in the early morning, or in shaded sections of the field, but it was the deer-flies–correct that, the fucking deer-flies–that were the most maddening. You made a habit of periodically running your fingers through your hair to crunch the little bastards before they struck skin. Their bites swelled and bled–when Dylan was younger he sometimes came home with the back of his neck clotted with blood. They seemed to think insect repellant was candy.

But the sun was by far your most relentless foe. You never really understand the sun until you realize it’s trying to kill you. Only when you experience its murderous side can you appreciate just how precariousness your position is relative to it–like people that way. By mid-afternoon you could swear that the earth’s orbit had crossed that of Mercury. You always kept one of those old four-quart thermos’s stashed at the shaded end of the field. Cherry freshie never tasted so good.

Cutter summed it up in his own special way. “Fucking nigger work,” he called it, not simply because it was unskilled labour with shit for pay, but because he swore the sun was going to burn him, “as black as a black man.”

Dylan laughed as he always laughed. Cutter summing things up.

60

(Indeterminate)

Nigger jokes were quite common in rural Southwestern Ontario in those days, though not quite the mainstay that fag jokes were. Dylan, in his slow migration between cultures, was always struck by the way his old, pre-university friends took more and more to censoring themselves in his presence. He would scarcely hear a peep of anything politically incorrect until the fifth or sixth beer. By time they were thoroughly hammered, it would be like a time warp, with all the old attitudes expressed in all the old ways. Well, perhaps not exactly the old ways. A certain habitual wariness coloured them, because ‘they’ were everywhere you know, immigrants and university fags. As well as a wobbly consciousness of arguments, condemning arguments, hanging out there in the semantic aether.

I mention this because I know that you’re pretty much hermetically sealed within ‘official culture,’ where the intangible norms that straitjacket The Globe & Mail and the CBC rule your dinner table as well. In the same way the uneducated only reach your attention as the objects of pity or policy or poetry, their attitudes remain submerged as well.

Take the Tsunami a few years back. I happen to know that as a matter of fact that, “There’s too many of them anyway,” was a prevalent attitude among many Canadians. I personally heard it spoken as a throwaway remark no less than three times. Did you encounter it? Maybe in the nethers of your family. Was it discussed in the media? Of course not.

Historians sifting through the archives in an attempt to gauge Canadian attitudes to the 2004 Tsunami would find only a booming humanitarian consensus. The thing to realize is that this is the point. We’re literally hardwired to publicize our most flattering face, especially to ourselves. Vanity is never so devious as when it disguises itself as truth–especially the journalistic variety–and never so pernicious as when it doubles as piety. It’s a masturbatory bait-and-switch game we play with ourselves all the time, confusing self-congratulation with morally clarity.

Once you begin to see your attitudes for what they are–largely cosmetic–then you’ll begin to understand. Your not enlightened. You’re certainly not critical.

Only cunning.

61

(1984)

I hesitate to label Dylan a racist because he grew up watching Sesame Street. He told nigger and paki jokes like everyone else, but with the same emotional laziness with which he told Irish and Dutch jokes. He said hateful things, but for whatever reason he never hated.

But he was most definitely a homophobe: where he grew up the only way to not be a fag was to hate them.

“Fag,” literally became a term of endearment among him and his friends. “Hey, fag.” “Hi, fag.” “Whatchya doin, fag?” And “cocksucker” became the reflex expletive of choice–so reflexive that Dylan embarrassed himself and offended others dozens of times during his first ten years in university. Intellectually he knew you’re only allowed to call people who don’t suck cock cocksuckers, but linguistic habits die hard. The bigoted vulgarity which his upbringing had raised to an artform, the crude patois of the fields, had no place in the antiseptic halls of academia. It had to be blotted out. Like everything else working class, it had to be labeled, tagged, and concealed by official culture. A relic of a dirtier past. Bigotry as enlightenment.

Hatred is inextricable from tradition. Which might be why our past is better off as a gift shop.

But Cutter, though. He was a racist through and through, and not enough of a homophobe for Dylan to really trust that he wasn’t gay. And as they whiled away the hours, pop-pop-popping through the field, he talked about things that made Dylan rigid with confusion.

For instance, how much he loved having his wife eat out his asshole.

The popping stopped. “Are you fucking kidding me? You did not just say that!”

And Cutter would chortle. “Top it! You top it right Now!”

“Crazy cocksucker!”

“You want me to top? If you want me to, I’ll top right Now!”

And the two of them, marooned in the middle of some field, would howl with laughter. You could never decide whether Cutter simply didn’t care what you thought, which pretty much guaranteed your respect, or whether he possessed a martyr’s absolute faith in the union of his hilarity and your amusement.

Where most people operated within the rules while remaining utterly insensible to them, Cutter was always hanging from them, like a boxer goading his audience, probing and testing the strength of his normative prison. He was what you would call transgressive, but not in the pretend way that you fetishize, the art-only ‘rule breaking’ that allows you to conceal status differentiation ploys behind the blind of ‘radical’ aesthetic scruples. He transgressed in the way of men who see rules as tools, who acknowledge only bars and batons as constraints.

Cutter never broke any skin, but he left scars enough, believe me.

How is it the air of inevitability in one of us can summon the same air in others? Some people look into the mirror, see the same ludicrous face day in and day out, and call it beauty. “My-my-my…” They then emanate this preposterous conviction so visibly, so palpably, that the incredulous relax and play along–and eventually even come to believe. Like Truman Capote. How is it that some people carry religions around with them?

Just what the fuck is charisma?

Whatever it was, Cutter possessed it. Shining from his Burt Lancaster grin. Hanging like a nimbus, scarcely detected, at the edge of his manner, sparking mirror neurons perhaps–those circuits in our brain that mimic the firing patterns that drive the actions of others–signaling them in indoctrinating ways.

Some people need only move for us to follow.

62

(1984)

Topping and suckering are the quiet time of the season, the long-walking lull between the insomnia of irrigation and the mechanical uproar of harvest. Unless the field they happened to be working bordered the kilnyard behind the house, Jerry usually drove the two of them out himself. Dylan was hung with the “bitch seat” in the middle, while Cutter either rolled doobies or spread papers sitting against the door.

The truck would bounce and float with that driving-across-a-blanket feel unique to tobacco field lanes. Dylan would watch the topped fields slide by with a curious mixture of pride and relief. Without thinking, he would think progress, not so much in the sense of advancing toward as in the sense of not having to repeat–of escape. A bodily satisfaction would wax and peter within him.

Done. Halle-fucking-lujah

They would sight the ranks of untopped rows and Jerry would always start “joking” about how far he expected them to go today. Cutter always replied with his let’s-talk-farm-with-Jerr routine.

“Yah-yah…”

“Well, yesterday there…”

“You know, if only…”

Dylan would sit swaying between the men, doing his best to avoid Cutter’s can-you-believe-this-idiot glances. And no matter how much it made his skin crawl he would always laugh with Cutter about it afterward, congratulate him in the slanted way he always demanded.

Jerr usually made a point of slamming the pickup to a stop. They would make desultory conversation while leaning against the truck, kicking the dirt, and of course smoking up. They would talk low out of respect for the morning chill.

After about fifteen minutes to a half an hour Jerr would leave them to their work. They would turn to the rows with the dread of the newly stoned.

63

(1984)

Cutter sucked his last smoke to the nub, pondered it for a moment. “To think some poor fucker picked this.”

Dylan smirked. “Yeah. What an asssshole.”

A clutch of human laughter, slipping out of the world’s pocket.

Talk is all there is in the lonely field.

Like many people, Dylan felt immeasurably more confident with a captive audience of one than he did in the company of three or more people. The more ears that listened, the more his voice seemed to totter on a unicycle. The face-saving story he cooked up to explain this had to do with “connecting.” He could only “connect” with a single interlocutor, he told himself,  because connected conversations demanded his undivided attention. He smoked too much dope to handle multi-tasking.

Only later–when he became me in fact–would he realize that it had more to do with perceived hierarchies. Whenever he was out of his element, which was pretty much all the time, he automatically saw himself as a low ranking male. His difficulty speaking in groups was simply mathematical: the more people in the room, the more of a loser he became. And who cares what the loser says?

But when it was just two, he was number two. His recognition, his approval mattered simply because there was no one else to eclipse or to relegate it.

If there was anything about topping and suckering that he celebrated, it was the gift of selfless talk–particularly with someone like Cutter, who seemed to personify the strengths he so envied. Cutter’s attention. His agreement. And especially his laughter. All of it carried the avid shine of vindication.

64

(1984)

There was the relationship advice.

Dylan told Cutter about his first serious girlfriend, Nancy Degroot, how she was crazy orgasmic, to the point where she would come simply giving him a blow-job. He told her about Shelley and the peek-a-boo panty game.

“Oh. My. God,” Cutter said, shaking his eyes at heaven. “If I could be seventeen again. Lordy-lordy. I’d fuck your neighbour so hard she’d need a bungee to hold her ankles together.”

“She’d never let you.”

“No. She’d never let you. She’s a fucking whore, believe you me. The reason she won’t fuck you is because she made a decision. Chicks do that. They tag you like an endangered species or something. ‘Him I’ll fuck. Him I’ll tease until his balls turn blue. Oooooh, top it. Top it pleeeeeasssse.’ Trust me, it’s just a power thing.”

“But I think she–”

“It’s just a power thing. Seriously. Fucking chicks, man. You’ll learn. You’ll learn soon enough.”

For his part, Cutter always remained general when talking about his exploits. It was always “this fucking crazy chick,” or “this one bitch this one time.” Lots of ball-licking. A couple of loads in the face. And the famous “gusher,” who, or so he claimed, had ruined him for the rest of his sex life.

Sometimes, when the inevitable silences swallowed up their conversation, Dylan would try to imagine what it would be like, banging a gusher. Despite the sun buzzing in his ears, he would become wistful with second-hand carnal fantasies.

65

(1984)

There was the gossip.

“Did he ever cheat on her?” Dylan asked. Jerry was a popular topic of conversation.

“Cheat?” A narrow and knowing look. “What do you think?”

Dylan shrugged. “No?”

“He was on the football team, man.”

“So?”

Cutter wagged his face skyward. “I keep forgetting that you’re a geek. When you’re on the football team girls want to hang out with you–drink with you. They don’t call it liquid panty remover for nothing.”

“So that’s a yes?”

“So that’s a yes?” he parroted. “Top it! He’s examined enough pussy to be a fucking cat doctor!”

Dylan laughed, but with a disconnect between volume and breath that made it feel forced.

Cutter tested his wolfish grin. “What about you?” he asked.

“Me? No. Never cheated.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot. Geeks go to fucking heaven.”

Dylan pressed him on the details of his personal life on a couple of occasions, but for whatever reason, this was the one topic which seemed to make Cutter anxious, as if part of him understood the contradiction between this caginess and his how-do-you-like-me-so-far? expressiveness otherwise. His “old lady,” as he called his wife, was a nagging bitch. And his kids–Chad, who was four, and Paul, who was six–were little hellions, just like their father. Other than these skeletal concessions, he refused to talk about his home life.

Dylan pressed him a couple of times, but he found the “weirdness” of Cutter’s attitude–he had no other way of comprehending it–unsettling. There was a darkness there that he could not name, a sense of straying into carcinogenic air.

He decided not to pursue the issue. He understood that humans, unlike any other animal, were just as prone to conceal their environment as themselves.

66

(1984)

Then there was the 100 000 dollar game, where greed was tossed on the scale with this or that outrageous hypothetical.

“Okay,” Dylan would say. “Okay… How about eating out a… fat-ass seventy-nine year old… who hasn’t showered in a fucking month?”

“Depends,” Cutter said. He was always big on qualifications. “Does she wipe her ass regularly.”

“Nope. She’s too fat.”

“Okay-okay… Here’s my answer. Yes, I would eat her pussy, but only if I could put a clothespin on my nose, and suck on a whole pack of Certs as a chaser.”

Cutter always said some version of, “Yes, so long as…” and with an earnestness that would have convinced outsiders that he really meant it. In fact, he was so convincing, that three or four times he actually had Dylan saying, “Are you serious? You’re serious aren’t you?”

The giant chicklet grin. For Cutter, this was a kind of triumph, getting others to think he was capable of unthinkable things.

So, he would suck a donkey’s dick, but only so long as he could wrap it in cherry-flavoured cellophane. He would eat maggot porridge, so long as he could add five tablespoons of brown-sugar. And he would shave a truck-drivers asshole, but only if a cherry was tucked into the guy’s sphincter.

And on and on, enough to cover forty-plus acres of tobacco.

Dylan would do none of these things, not even in jest, and somehow they both understood that this made him weaker. It would have been the other way around, had he played the game with anyone but Cutter–and somehow they both understood this as well. It was like they were ambassadors of different tribes, the one an ancient tributary of the other.

67

(1984)

And of course, there were the obligatory philosophical conversations.

Otherwise known as ‘blasphemy.’

“I don’t get it,” Cutter said. “I saw this sign at this church the other day–you ever notice how they all have signs? Like fucking Zellars, only with pretend money! ‘Come worship with us,’ it said. Worship? What the fuck is up with that? I wanted to sneak back at night and steal the fucking letters. ‘Come with us…’ How’s that for a religious message, eh? ‘Come with us!’ Amen to that!”

Dylan grinned. “Pass the plate, brother–and some tissue please.”

Cutter found this enormously funny. “The way I figure it,” he cried through his chuckles, “if they’re on their knees anyway, they might as well do something useful. I got a secret for ya, Reverend, your wife falls to her knees every afternoon at two–and the body of Christ is long, hard, and hairy!”

“Worship is worship.”

Laughter across the fields, the roar pulled thin by the absence of reflective surfaces, soaked silent by the long accumulating rows. A man and a boy.

68

(Indeterminate)

Out there…

The hot ring of your cap, like a tin strap cinched about your head. Your feet swelling in your sneakers, shuffling through dust and dirt. The cat-tongue licks of innumerable tobacco leaves. The glass of your watch-face steamed with perspiration. The black gum across your skin burning like a second hide in the sun–you had to use the inside of your wrists and forearm to squeeze the sweat from your scalp.

An ancient gesture that, pulling off your cap, squinting against the unshielded glare, the ever widening circle of plants, motionless, tense with photosynthesis, a grid to measure the endless to and fro of the bugs, white-dots crisscrossing the surface of the lonely field.

Talking, they were released. Talking, they were cooler than everything.

Out there.

Walking endless rows, tobacco and human.

69

(Inapplicable)

Fucking nostalgia.

Nostalgia is what happens when the present outruns your presence. When all the old habitats are levelled, and you wake up in the zoo. You begin yearning for what you used to hate, not because things would be any different, but because you would be different.

To go back is to unlearn–to attempt something more profound than mere forgetting or vicarious escape.

Here’s a way to think of it. Nostalgia is a being toward birth, the vanishing point of all backward gazes.

There is no Archimedean point, but there is a haze. We were born. We arise out of nothing. This is the one thing that contexts cannot encircle, the one absolute in the skidding plummet of our life.

The contexts that swaddle me not only began, they pile up with the passage of moments. If the fact of prior contexts is exhausted by this very context Now, then contexts are conceptually incoherent. You can never say that prior contexts determine anything, because it is always this very context Now that is doing the determining. Geography, history, psychology, pretty much any contextual register you can imagine, collapses into a solipsism of the present.

There is always more. I know more than I did when I was an infant–not differently.

I know better.

Which is to say I no longer know much of anything at all.

And this is the paradox, isn’t it? That knowing more in fact murders the experience of knowing.

And this is what we pine for. Time riddles us with unwanted revelations, until we become bloated, sponge-soaked with indecision and uncertainty. Nostalgia is the unasking of questions, a wilful purge of doubt and its accumulations. Innocence is code for drowsy illusion.

Too many questions. Too many ignorances made visible. Too many concessions to weakness, to context in its innumerable occult forms. Everything embroiled in medias res. Everything always already.

Living becomes angling.

We lose sight of the most astounding fact of all–our beginning. But instead of celebrating the fact, we eulogize the experience, the what-it-was-like.

Those days.

And this is why nostalgia so easily lapses into fascism. Because it isn’t contexts all the way down, because we are so much more, the present must be cut and beaten. Only force can police clarity.

Ignorance stands at the heart of our longing. Ignorance of our ignorance. Ignorance of ourselves.

Numbness is our foundation. Our soft and sandy soil.

70

(1984)

All conversations trail into silence sooner or later. The work never runs out of breath. Sometimes Dylan would think about something Cutter had said, a pondering that was more a parroting. Thinking senseless of itself

Pop. Pop. Pop. An insect whining through the susurrus of sky and field. Remembered phrases rising in smokey plumes, associations drifting this way and that. Glances up the row, across the field. Another bug.

So far to go. Fuck me.

Other times Dylan would think about those things he would never dream of telling Cutter–things he pursued against the grain of shame. Like Conan warring against Picts on the bourne of civilization and barbarity. Like Guild Navigators folding space and time. Like Feanor crafting the Silmarils in obsessive gloom, daring to grasp the madness at the pith of art, and finding himself seized.

Sometimes, when Cutter interrupted him during one of these reveries, he would have dragon in one eye and a spaceship in the other. Blink…

And they were gone.

71

(Indeterminate)

People are funnels.

We all possess a reflexive censoriousness that we’re largely blind to, one that we anchor in this or that basic evaluative concept. For most men in rural Southwestern Ontario, that concept was FAG. If Dylan was exceedingly careful about whom he mentioned his reading to, it was because reading science fiction and fantasy flirted with FAG’s definitional parameters.

When he first went to university he was naive enough to think that this would change, that the conceptual funnel would be broad enough to include his interests–but he realized within the first two weeks that the situation was even worse. If reading fantasy flirted with FAG in the fields, it was out and out married to STUPID in the classroom.

This led him to make the tragic mistake that led to me. It seems remarkable, Now that I think about it. All those years weathering the judgement of hard men, some of whom would cut throats they were so see-it-through, only to crumble before the condemnation of soft-handed fools.

The hypocrites got him, hammered him into a version of themselves. Me.

You.

Of course you can’t be human, and you can’t have a culture, without having a FAG of some description, and I guess STUPID is as good a FAG as any. But I’m starting to think that HYPOCRITE is even better. The problem with STUPID is that what people really mean is CLOWN. Where FAG is meant to punish deviations from behavioural orthodoxy, STUPID is meant to punish deviations from aesthetic orthodoxy. Dylan was identified as STUPID not because he was in fact stupid, but because he did not share his instructors’ tastes.

For them, anything POPULAR simply had to be STUPID. Though they loved things about the fields, they could not abide anything from the fields. And so they walked down rows of humans…

Pop. Pop. Pop.

It’s all monkey stuff actually, paleolithic status imperatives dressed up in complicated, post-industrial skin. All your extended meditations on quotidian minutae, all your fucking around with representational norms–what has it achieved? Really?

Aside from turning you into a FAG and making the rest of the world STUPID.

72

(Present)

Can’t you see how much we needed you?

Not as you are (just more precious versions of ourselves…)

But as you pretend to be.

Maybe you’re bouncing on a bus, enduring yet another wintry commute to school. Maybe you’re squinting against the glare of some beach, or hunched over a kitchen table, or sprawled across a recliner. Maybe you’re glib with satisfied ambitions, or bitter with the frustrated expectations…

And Now you find yourself Here wrestling with this

Strange, isn’t it? reading someone who doesn’t pretend his audience is Father Time, reading a voice from somewhere calling out to someone in particular. The voice from nowhere to no one is perhaps the greatest literary conceit of all. Sure, the canon abounds with ‘unreliable narrators,’ and the smug assumption that short of this narrative self-reflexivity the authorial voice is bound to be naive.

But two brains are required to close the communicative circuit. If we reify meaning and pin it to the ink, then it seems we can hook our voices in the sky, that we need only write. We confuse the possibility that anyone anywhere at anytime might read us with speaking to no one in particular at all. But all communication is communication to someone in particular, simply because all communication is bound by socialized protocols. You are always writing for somebody, even if you hide that somebody behind your pompous bulk.

No. It is in the interest of the literary author to let you hide in apparent anonymity, to write to the occlusion of your frame. We call attention to the compositional performance because this lends our voice the tenor of a certain fashionable profundity. My, don’t things get tricky when words appear to refer to themselves! But we rarely, if ever, call attention to the whole show. To do so would be to risk revealing the parochial penury of the entire exercise.

“I will write only what will confirm your precious assumptions and reaffirm your sense of privileged self-identity, while critiquing the beliefs and the identities of those you consider your moral and intellectual inferiors under the hypocritical guise of writing for them.”

What author wants to say this? What reader wants this said?

So you enter into the mean little conspiracy that you call Literature. And despite being peevish and small–human–you feel so wide and open you might as well be the sky. And you close the covers happy, especially when the book affords you the opportunity to hate. Why? Because this is what you paid you for: to dance around the sublimated fire with all the like-minded savages, howling out your glory and heaping abuse upon your competitors.

Certainly not to be ‘challenged.’ No one wants to be challenged. How can I say this? Because no one wants to be wrong. Conversion is something that happens when the other guy sees the light of your truth.

The next time you pass a Christian bookstore, catch that twinge of derision by the throat and marvel at your dishonesty. To celebrate chauvinism is to admit it. And you? Do you think saying things like, “Well, yes, of course I’m bound to my time and place, but at least I’m able to acknowledge as much…” is anything more than a cunning form of denial? To think that criticality is a nonperishable good is bad enough, but to think that it’s something most likely found in your hothouse cupboards is nothing short of… what? Preposterous?

Or how about, pathetic?

Criticality is a form of self-hatred, and there’s so much about you that you love. Once criticality becomes ‘one more thing to love’ about yourself, you’ve embraced a piety that’s well-nigh invulnerable simply because it can never be seen. Your aristocracy becomes implicit, tucked away so that you can pretend ‘be in touch’ and ‘feel for’ the very people you continually use (as you must, given your hardwiring) to leverage your sense of social superiority.

This is why we only call attention to the authorial fraction of the literary show. It allows us to go through the motions of being critical without being critical of all. Unreliable narrators are the most ingenious place for unreliable readers to hide. To say “This text is bent,” is to imply that your eye is straight.

Nothing like counting lies to make yourself feel true.

73

(1984)

A week into suckering Cutter began pulling no-shows, stranding him alone in the fields. So Dylan stole a bulk pack of Duracell AAs from Loblaws and began wearing his chincy walkman out to the field. He listened to Black Sabbath mostly, especially the self-titled album, Sabotage, and Volume 4. He rocked down the rows, doing little jigs with each plant as he stripped the suckers from the stem. He banged his head, thinking of holes in the sky taking him to heaven, or of asking the final question, if the answer could be sold. Sometimes the guitar crescendos crashed through him, transformed his heart into the missing instrument. Other times they slipped into the background, became as emotionally inert as a PA announcement at K-Mart.

He made a game of whipping the dead batteries as far as he could out into the woods.

A kind of child-laziness stole back upon him. One day in particular he loafed, spent at least three hours tooling around in the dirt, even though he knew Jerr would be all over him. Counting rows is easy.

It was one of those hot overcast days, where exhalations fell seamlessly into the warm dank. A day when falling leaves could be mistaken for butterflies. He sat in the lane, leaning back on his elbows with his legs kicked out, staring past the verge into the woods, studying the great upright limbs from which everything sagged. Only against woolen skies, it seemed, could he see the cunning in the way the leaves leaned against the sun.

He gazed with a kind of passive-aggressive wonder, drawn but not quite fooled. Here he was, the son of a farmer, farming, and he lacked any living engagement with these… things. With the earth.

Trees, weeds–what the fuck did he know?

He remembered reading that humans hadn’t changed at all during their long climb into the crazed maze of civilization, that they had possessed all the capacities they possessed Now in the stone age as well. Same memory. Same basic reasoning skills. Same experiential template. (The idea had shocked him at the time–he had always assumed that cavemen were mentally retarded or something). It stood to reason, he supposed; he believed everything he read back then. But for whatever reason the consequences of this cognitive parity escaped him until Now, peering through the barked hollows, between mangy sheets of dark and green. Every fact in his brain, he realized, had some paleolithic counterpart. But where he knew things like the Warsaw Pact’s numerical superiority in tanks, or how Tonny Iommi had rubber fingertips, or how the Pepsi Challenge was simply a matter of sugar content, they knew things like birdcalls, seasonal cycles, herbs and gossip, the names and personalities of trees…

He felt it then, like the murmur of preschool conditioning beneath acts neither automatic nor intentional. Not alienated–the aura of belonging was palpable–but rather contrived and thin, so very thin, as though he were little more than a patch on the world, something fastened with a vague and general adhesive. A paleolithic Dylan, he realized, would be there in a way he could scarcely imagine, intimate with immediate things, so bound with place and community as to be indistinguishable from them. A paleolithic Dylan, would be here, to the follicle, to the pore, rather than strung across a rubber globe.

This indistinguishable from that.

But here he was, the modern Dylan, little more than a tourist, snapping mental pictures instead of seeing, more concerned with bragging rights than with the nature of things. Thoroughly “geworfed” as he and the other Heideggereans would joke in University.

Only when confronted with the blank intricacies of nature does it become obvious that we have a nature, an answering nature.

Only in the breach.

74

(Adolescence)

Reminiscences fill me differently depending on their emotional tenor.

When Dad still managed the tobacco farm, Dylan was forced to top the whole crop on his own–”Why should we give anyone else the money!” Dad would always cry, because that was what in fact the work ethic was as far as he was concerned, the money ethic.

This often meant working from sun up to sun down. Long hours for a teenager.

Dylan would make sundials in the dirt, trying to correlate the fall of shadows with hands on his watch. He would lay down in the middle of the fields, beneath and among the turgid leaves, staring at insects that skittered across the granular grey, wondering at the scale of things, and the way they stacked together. He would pause in the middle of empty fields, gaze at the fluff tracing movie-star autographs across the field.

He collected dead bugs with wings as big as maple keys. He peered into the forest verge.

He listened to an earth without cars or aircraft or language. He understood that everything living was a kind of worm.

He trained himself to see the sun as a fixed point–to feel the world wheel beneath his feet.

The principles of sun-dials eluded him. To this very day, I still don’t understand them.

75

(Indeterminate)

Topping and suckering were one of the few tobacco jobs with a rational work schedule: 8 to 5 with weekends off. Dad urged him to take more shifts at the grocery store, which he did do, but only because it gave him an excuse to stay in St. Thomas for the weekend. To party.

In highschool, Dylan was one of the ‘druggie geeks,’ the group who would congregate in the smoking area discussing swords and sorcery with fuck-you-world expressions. They would flick their butts at the pant-legs of whoever happened to be the loser-of-the-moment, and always swear loud enough to be overheard.

They would say things like, “Oh man, I was soooo fucked up!”

I find it hard to recall, all that floundering in the soup of peer group socialization. All those anxieties. All those defensive points of pride. All those instances of attention seeking. All those petty bids for status.

All those drugs.

Retrospection has a way of welding your actions to your circumstances. The further back you reach in your past, I find, the more mechanical you seem–the more foolish. Agency evaporates. This… becomes “that.”

Memory is an exercise in puppetry.

Freedom is an artifact of our inability to recall the future.

76

(1995)

Some several months after the poker game with the nihilist, the second year of his PhD program, Dylan failed the oral defence of his dissertation outline.

By this time he had realized that something was wrong with theory. The problem, he eventually decided, was that various theoretical positions all employed exclusive vocabularies, concepts that worked well and fine in their own theoretical economies, but necessarily fell short when plugged into others. What he needed was a kind of mathesis universalis, a way of translating different theoretical positions into a common language, a kind of pragmatic conceptual patois that would allow theorists to get around the problem of continually begging the question when answering the criticisms of their theoretical foes.

So he began innovating his ‘third way,’ a conceptual vocabulary possessing the resources to translate conceptual staples belonging to other theoretical positions into its own idiom with minimal loss.

At some point, he got it into his head that he needed as much critique as possible, if he was going to craft his theoretical ambitions into something that would survive the theory jungle. So he literally used a Darwinian sensibility when approaching various professors to serve on his dissertation committee. If his little theoretical organism could survive a Derridean Tiger, a Marxist Lion, a Historicist Shark, a Freudian Python, and a Feminist Spider, then it would have to be a remarkable little organism indeed, perhaps one that could claw its way to the very pinnacle of the theoretical food chain–maybe even be translated into French.

It ended in fucking disaster.

According to the Derridean (his supervisor, no less), his project was too overtly metaphysical, a crypto-transcendental attempt to resurrect the Kantian project (which he conceded, was better than trying to resuscitate the Cartesian program). The Feminist accused him–him, not the outlined dissertation project–of being sexist. “I find it interesting,” he said, “how you only make eye contact with Seymour.” The Historicist, to her credit, simply acknowledged that she couldn’t understand half of what he had written. “You go on and on about these ‘conditions of possibility,’ she said, “but you never talk about what actually happened.” The Marxist was inclined to agree: he thought the project engaged, “Far, far, far too many empty formalisms.”

The Freudian pulled a no show: a stunt that would possess far-ranging consequences, all of them invisible.

They all said many complimentary things about his ‘originality’–they had certain ersatz rhetorical commitments to discharge, after all. But it was as plain as the sunlight streaming through the windows that they had no fucking clue what he was on about.

Neither did he, for that matter.

It struck him at the time that none of what was happening–the questioning, the answering, the professorial posturing and the collegial asides–was really real, that it was actually a bizarre kind of art installation, one inviting the viewer to take his ‘subject position,’ and so subject themselves to a canny recontextualization of the ‘academic experience,’ one that inculcated even as it defamiliarized…

The Derridean with the flake of turquoise snot on his moustache, the Marxist losing more and more body fat with every passing minute, until his forehead seemed to map the Amazonian River Basin, the Feminist peering at him as if astounded he hadn’t seen ‘as much’ earlier, the Historicist trying hard to cultivate a look of dishevelled boredom, but simply looking frightened instead, and the empty seat creaking beneath the weight of the missing Freudian.

The folly of his Darwinian approach came crashing home. (The folly of his project would take several more years to discover). He had been thinking that theoretical positions were like predators dwelling in a shared ecosystem, when in point of fact they were ecosystems dwelling in isolated predators.

Obsessing over the ordeal afterward, he finally realized that the point of writing a dissertation was not to ‘add’ anything ‘genuinely new’ to the field, it was to pretend to. The ‘new,’ whatever it was, had to run the gauntlet of the old, which always liked to think of itself as the ‘new.’ To be considered radical, he realized, he had to be strategically reactionary, plain and simple.

Up to this point, he had made the mistake almost every graduate student makes: he had taken his professors at their word.

77

(1984)

Hanging out with Cutter had given him uncharacteristic confidence, something which his friends acknowledged in the way that all non-ritual transformations of social fact are acknowledged: implicitly. Eye contact was more firm and prolonged. Other voices were less likely to pop into self-regarding existence when he was talking. People were more inclined to turn toward him rather than listen over their shoulder.

Having crazy-ass tobacco stories with characters as obviously cool as Cutter figuring in them helped. As did the gram or so of magic mushrooms he dropped with all the others.

They had learned from hard experience to keep their shroom parties small–close friends only, and absolutely no assholes. So it was just the seven of them slung across couches and chairs about the coffee table, ribbons of tobacco smoke dissolving into solution above.

Mike and Mark Gilbert belonged to Dylan’s original Dungeons and Dragons campaign, back when he had lived in Port Stanley with his mother. Because they were identical twins, people liked calling them “Mirk”–especially as the night wore on. Sean Hopper was one of Dylan’s best friends growing up on Lakeshore Road: they had spent whole summers exploring the wooded bluffs of Lake Erie’s north shore. Janet Nistleroy was Hopper’s long time girlfriend, as cool a chick as any, sarcastic and compassionate by turns. Stuey was her older brother, though he behaved like her younger brother in every way. Lisa Paul was Jan’s childhood friend, the person she first sniffed glue with back in grade four.

For his part, Dylan loved and trusted them all. For my part, I’m not sure I would recognize them if I bumped into them in the grocery store, and I’m not sure I would speak to them even if I did. Thanks to capital and the technological concentration of production, we live off the labour of strangers. We Now bond with one another in the utter absence of the economic interdependencies that once underwrote all our relationships. We love against the grain of our social structure, which means the path of least resistance usually leads to solitude. Friendship has become work.

And like you, I’m so very tired.

Emboldened by the shrooms, Dylan told them about Nancy, a 96 year-old woman he had befriended at Loblaws the previous spring. He was shocked to find himself telling this story, and not just because he never told stories to more than two people at a time. Nancy had been a burr in his brain for several weeks. Even when you’re 17 you somehow sense those people who outrun you in some fundamental respect. In Dylan’s case, almost all of them had been elderly.

Once he’d been stacking dozens of overstock trays of tuna, building a wall of them on a skid set high atop the store shelves. Since the back of the skid extended some 18 inches beyond the shelf rack’s central rung, he was loading what was essentially a giant wooden teeter-totter. He set down one tray too many, and watched with–what was it? numb disbelief? skin-slicking shock? nothing at all?–as the wall of tin cans tipped to the horizontal, floated out beyond recovery, gently extended across space, then dropped in loose formation into the far aisle…

Where it broke across the crumpling form of an old man. Wipe out.

His heart in his throat, Dylan jumped to the floor and ran thinking a thousand things: that the old guy had been killed, that he was about to lose his job, that he would have to reduce five hundred cans of tuna for quick sale. He almost cried out for joy when he saw the geezer pressing himself up on his cane.

“Are you okay?” Dylan cried. “Are you hurt?”

The old man simply looked at him frowning. “Jeeezus Christ,” he said. “I used to work the fucking mines, kid. You think tuna could take me out?” Then he kicked his way past the heaped cans and continued shopping.

Tough as fucking nails.

Then there was this other old guy who simply came up to him one evening and said, “Did you know I used to work as a janitor at the O. H.?”

The “O. H.” was St. Thomas speak for the Ontario Hospital, a gigantic psychiatric facility located on the south edge of town, and one of the region’s biggest employers after the Ford plant. The locals liked to point out the DO NOT PICK UP HITCH-HIKERS signs whenever they drove past on Highway 4. They would shake their heads in amused disbelief, and start swapping legends about this or that criminally insane psycho. Everyone in town, it seemed, knew someone who was married to a nurse in this or that ward.

Dylan smiled as the old janitor. “You did, did you?” he said, imitating the patronizing tone his coworkers used to deflect the overtures of the old. During lunch break, they referred to these as “fuck you very much” moments.

“Yep. And you know what?”

There was something in the geezer’s manner–like a spring screwed down–that commanded Dylan’s attention.”And what’s that?” he asked. Despite his oh-oh-another-old-weirdo tone, he found himself genuinely curious.

The old guy squinted up at him, grinning. “I was supposed to be retired but they called me retarded–so Now I live there!” He sort of did this little tap-dancer move, ta-fucking-da, and then he just ambed away.

Crazy as a shit-house rat.

By and large, the tables have been turned on the old. The ‘wisdom’ that rendered them so valuable in days of yore has come back to bite them in their saggy asses. Thanks to the pace of technologically mediated change, experience has become baggage. Now everywhere the old look, they find themselves outrun, huffing and puffing under all that “weight of experience,” lapped time and again, until finally they get shoo-shooed from the track.

Benched.

But sometimes, quite inadvertently, they embody the wisdom they once knew. Sometimes, by simple virtue of who they are, they smack the pride from the young, a pride that is absolute for being so thoughtless, so stupid. Sometimes their baggage snaps open, and the young stand exposed in their penury.

An old miner who brushes off cans tuna like dandruff. An old janitor who goes mad cleaning up after the insane. How could a 17 year-old grocery clerk even pretend to have “one up” on such men?

How sad was that?

But Nancy… Ah, Nancy. She would more than just outrun him.

Because Loblaws was a union shop, and because Dylan had got in just as the store opened, he had seniority, so he was able to take all the plum evening shifts at the beginning of the week. Nancy used to come in every Monday night. Her granddaughter would bring her to the store, set her up with a grocery cart, and the old woman would be off to the races. Even at 96 she insisted on shopping for her own groceries.

She was one of those old people who continually seem to broadcast the image of their youth. Even Now, when I think back to her, I reflexively see her as a statuesque and clear-eyed, filled to the brim with charm and bustle. I have to think to remember her as she really was: withered, milk-eyed, her nylons sagging at her ankles, holding her grocery cart like minibike handlebars.

You meet lots of regulars when you work at a grocery store, and most of them remain just that, regulars, part of an amorphous mass of partially recognized faces that probably best sums up humanity as a whole. Everyone’s gotta eat–everyone but everyone. That’s the thing about a grocery store: the insulting combination of intimacy and anonymity. So you see housewives with the Tampax they slip into their pussies, assembly line stiffs with the Preparation-H they dab onto their buds, and the whole town with the toilet paper they read like tea leaves after every wipe. If you think about it, ringing through your groceries is one step away from home invasion. Why else would you hide the stuff in cupboards the instant you drag it through the front door? Even homes have their public faces.

So with the regulars there’s always this mutual you-ignore-me-and-I-ignore-you kind of thing. They say, “Hey,” and you say, “Hey,” and they ask you where the cold-sore medication is, and you tell them, and everyone resumes waddling behind their carts, floating through an enumerated world of Fisher-Price colours and canned everything.

But some customers, for whatever reason–be it stupidity or courage–refuse to abide by the rules. Some rise above the tide of ‘regulars’ and become part of the cast that, along with coworkers, makes for the daily melodrama that is the fact behind the economic abstraction called the “service industry.”

Nancy began as a friend, but ended up becoming something much more. I would like to say “lover,” but I know Dylan would have none of fucking that.

At first they just talked. Dylan was blown away: here was a woman who had lived the bulk of her life before radio, who had lost a husband in the Great War, and who had buried most of her children. Now I imagine this sounds touching and all that, but we need to remember that Dylan was a head-banging, dope-smoking 17 year-old, pretty much distinguished only by his kickass Dungeon-mastering and the dim glimmerings of a philosophical conscience. What so fascinated Dylan, at least at the outset, was that Nancy was cool.

She quite literally seemed like a character in a book. It would be hard to decide whether he liked her more for who she was, or for the stories he could tell his work buddies afterward. He rather liked the idea of befriending someone so old and so cool. I mean, what could a mere 50 year-old offer in comparison? An American cousin who had been in Vietnam, maybe? Squat. The uncomfortable truth of the matter was that there was something decidedly uncomfortable about Nancy, especially in those first grocery-store interludes. He dreaded her appearance at the end of the aisle at least as much as he anticipated it.

As I said, she outran him.

At some point, they began holding hands while they talked. Now you might think this is significant, the initiation of physical contact, but then we’ve been conditioned by media to read all incidences of touching as sexual-romantic cues. Back then, it was actually quite common for old people to grab you while they talked: as encumbered with experience as they were, it was pretty much only way they could prevent you from lapping them. Back then they hadn’t all been benched like they are Now. No. What was significant about the hand-holding was the change in conversation that accompanied it.

Nancy began speaking about death.

Now, as we know, Dylan had been a huge Black Sabbath fan from the age of 12. For whatever reason, one line from one song in particular haunted him: “Would you like to see the Pope on the end of a rope, do you think he’s a fool? When you think about death do you lose your breath, or do you think that you’re cool?” He rarely pondered the line, simply repeated it ad nauseum while doing this or that mindless tuna display. And when he did think about it, he would primarily reflect on the “Pope on a rope” line–he liked the ring of that for some reason. On the few occasions he considered the second line, he had to admit that, yes, he felt pretty damn cool when he thought about death. After all, he had skulls on every other T-shirt, he bought albums with skulls on them, he even used to doodle skulls whenever he was bored in class–this wicked, wide-jawed, long-fanged, flaming thing that everyone complimented him on. Skulls were cool. So death was cool, QED.

But whenever Nancy mentioned it, he lost his breath–literally.

Nancy, it turned out, was as bitter and as she was terrified.

She literally spent her days mourning her funeral. It wasn’t fair she told him, to live for so long, so deeply, and to turn around and find it all flattened into nothing. That was what she kept coming back to, over and over again. “It’s not fair,” she would rasp over the piped melodies of Abba, Elton John, and Barry Manilow. And Dylan would want to console her, but he would look into her ancient eyes, at the tears that could never form, that could never slip down her cheeks because they were always rut-broken and wrinkle-squeezed into threads, and he would be aghast.

Strange word, ‘aghast.’ It needs to be left alone to be truly appreciated.

She became important to him then, and in ways he could never articulate, and I would only end up inadvertently lampooning. The most I can say is that he understood, in the vague, thin-blooded way of 17 year-olds, that she had not only outrun him, she had split him into two… That if he were to write about himself before Nancy, he would feel compelled to refer to himself as ‘he.’

Once, several weeks following, while he was building a special display aisle for the store’s quarterly Insider’s Report, Nancy surprised him coming around the head of the aisle. With an uncharacteristic air of nervousness she blurted, “I have a favour to ask you, Dylan.” Her voice was always paradoxical, at once papery with age and stone-hard with long speaking. But this time it was almost… childlike.

“Whatever you want!” he replied. I want to say that he beamed with pride, but I’m pretty certain that’s just me trying to own the decisive generosity of his answer.

“It’s just that…” she said, hesitating. “It’s been so long.”

“I don’t understand. What’s been so long?”

Her eyes wet, their irises bruised and spackled with pale and grey, she stared up at him and said, “Dylan… Would you kiss an old woman?”

Now this moment is lost to me. In my mind, Dylan is a kind of hole at this instant, an absence where there should be shining significance. What would a 17 year-old feel at such a moment? All I know is that he leaned down, not so very far because she was so tall, even at 96, and softly kissed her lips.

And the tears welled, for once strong enough to fall unbroken along the length of her cheeks, where they hung like moles before dropping like diamonds.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “It’s been so long since a young man… a lovely… young…”

She was Scottish and exceedingly proud, and her weeping embarrassed her. She waved and smiled, pressed past him, left him watching her as she receded down the aisle using her cart as a walker.

Monday after Monday passed, a series of bright consumer pulses, and she never showed. The thoughts of a 17 year-old, as you well know, waft about randomly, like that empty grocery bag in American Beauty, only socked in winds of want and anxiety. Yearnings for the upcoming weekend. Schemes to wrangle a pud out his dealer’s personal stash. Worries about what so-and-so meant when they said such-and-such last weekend. Scenarios, about what he would say to his prick manager if he brought up the time sheets, and about what he should have said to that prick in the meatroom, the district manager’s son.

Images of finger penetration in the most recent issue of Penthouse.

These banalities, too low even for official literature, continued to compose the soundtrack of his daily existence. But Nancy had become a continuous solemn note, drawing unforeseen harmonies from the otherwise slovenly and negligent symphony of his Lebenswelt. He worried about her, not enough to actually inquire–he was a chronic dope-smoker after all–but enough to agonize over whether he should. The kiss was too large a thing for such a young man to frame within the scope of his responsibilities…

Besides, she was just another customer, wasn’t she? Even if she had lapped him.

In his mind’s eye he saw sick rooms, frail forms breathing against the press of stone-cold sheets. And he would ask without asking, How could Nancy be benched when he was the breathless one?

Then one Wednesday night, while slugging milk in the dairy section, he saw her slowly making her way around the yogurt case. “Nancy!” he cried, with that false cheer we so often resort to in times of interpersonal indecision–like a kind of contract we wave, saying, Here, sign this, and we can both pretend.

But Nancy was signing nothing. Without a word she parked her cart against the Danone stand the sample girl used during day shift.

“I’ve been worried about you,” he added lamely.

She leaned toward him and clutched him by the forearm.

He looked down, at her hand, her forearm, and saw the bruised mottling of her flesh through the chapped wax that was her skin. And for some reason, he recoiled–he actually tried to pull away. Afterward, he would chalk it up to some kind of mortal premonition, as though the two of them were clamps on a booster cable and death was the battery.

But she was not about to let go. In fact, she pulled back, like a school-marm who had at long last caught him in some dastardly act.

Dumbfounded, shamed, he gazed into her eyes, into a face that could scarcely sheath her eager skull.

“Remember!” she cried and rasped and murmured. I still flinch from the memory of her rheumy glare.

“As you are Now, I once was. And as I am Now, you will one day be.”

And that was it.

Those were the only words she said.

She ignored his every attempt to engage her, left him watching her waddle her way down the meat aisle, then disappear around a Hostess potato chip display.

Dylan resumed filling the milk. A few weeks later he would hear from one of the cashiers that she had died. He never knew what to feel, and I still don’t.

When he told the story afterward, as he did that night with all his friends on shrooms, he always made a point of grabbing the forearm of the person nearest to him the way she had grabbed his, then speaking the penultimate words to them–”Remember…” I feel ashamed of him for doing that, though I’m not quite sure why. I’m pretty certain that if I ever had the opportunity to tell that story again, I would do it in the exact same way. That if I could clutch your forearm…

It’s funny how writing about true things seems to make them holy.

He would always conclude by saying, “And you know what, I was seventeen when that happened, Now I’m x, and”–he would always pause to snap his fingers–”it happened just yesterday…”

As you might imagine, the story sparked quite a bit of discussion that night, given the audience and their tweaked neurochemistry. Though Nancy’s final words run the risk of sounding trite and cliche to the likes of you and me, reminiscent of something from one of Kundera’s later novels, perhaps, for Dylan and his mushroom enhanced friends it was as profound as profound could be.

Hegel deep.

The big question was, What did she mean?

The most obvious answer, and far and away the one he most commonly received when his audience considered his story genuinely, rather than the exercise in narcissistic myth-making it would later become (people as self-conscious as Dylan simply cannot be trusted with their own pasts), was that she was telling him to live life to the fullest, to not take a single instant for granted, because after eine Augenblick, it would be gone.

But if that was the case, Dylan would always protest, then Nancy had sadly overestimated him. When he became a huge Seinfeld fan in his twenties, he would say she had mistaken him for someone who didn’t have the emotional constitution of George Costanza. He would tell a kind a half-lie, which was that the event had been a source of continual anxiety for him, rather than an essential landmark on his journey to a joyful life.

I say half-lie, because, indeed, the event would become a source of nagging, low-level anxiety, but only because he continually told stories about it, and soon lost the ability to distinguish what was raw and what had been cooked with self-serving spice. The way Dylan told the story, it seemed, very little of Nancy leaked through.

Perhaps that was the way it should have been.

The interpretation Dylan himself offered would be based on his prior conversations with Nancy, on her sense of injustice. According to this interpretation, she wasn’t urging him to live his life to the fullest, as she herself had, but to brace himself for the shock that had undone her final days. “One morning, you’re going to wake up, kid, and you’re going to find yourself on the bench, just waiting to be cut from the team.”

And it’s going to happen just like that…

Boom.

Dylan took a strange satisfaction in leaving people with gloomy, perspective skewing thoughts. A “regular good-time wrecking ball” one of his girlfriends would tell him. But that night, they were all zinging on shrooms, listening to the zip-zip-zip of tunes, and this story was just what the doctor ordered. People were shouting back and forth, buddies who couldn’t think their way to the bottom of a beer bottle were climbing the big rocks, baby, asking the hard questions.

The humungus-fungus-was-among-us…

Somehow they found themselves talking about the most perplexing thing of all: the Now.

“Like,” Dylan shouted out over the crunching finale to some Judas Priest tune, “doesn’t the Now just freak you out? I mean it’s Now, but it’s not, you know? It’s always Now, this Now, and yet… I mean, the moment I say it, say ‘this Now,’ it’s already that Now Now!” The music vanished into cassette-tape hiss. “Like, how fucked up is that?”

Jan whipped a palm to her chin to catch spit beer. Laughing and staring at him with bunny-rabbit pupils, she cried, “Dyllllan… Like, how fucked up are you?”

The next song crashed like a big brown wave. He looked around at everyone, smiling and nodding, squinting his oops-I-forgot squint as they howled. I Now know that they loved him, that they thought he was weird, yes, but that they also thought he was extraordinary. I know that. I just wish I could find some way to tell him.

“Pretty fucked up,” he admitted.

78

(Inapplicable)

Newton thought gravity was a force simply because he assumed that space was Euclidean. If an object deviates from a straight line, something has to be acting on it. Einstein showed that gravity wasn’t a thing at all, but rather a consequence of the way matter curves space. He transformed what had seemed a foreground feature into an expression of the greater background.

Likewise, the Now has nothing to do with some special mechanism in the brain. Neuroscientists will never find any ‘neural correlate of the Now’ because the Now, like gravity, is not a foreground feature, though the ontological chicanery intrinsic to conceptualization is sure to make it appear such.

Consciousness has its own topology, it’s own curves and observational distortions. The Now, if anything, is the result of what our brains don’t have.

We generally have difficulty wrapping our heads around the fact that our heads are wrapped around us. Our experience is always ‘out there,’ as Heidegger so obscurely shows. We look out our eyes, sure, and our eyes are little holes in our head, okay, and our head is like a little house in which ‘we’ live, and everything else is out there, beyond our head, in the world–as far as experience goes. But all this experience–and we know this for a fact–arises inside the head. ‘Out there’ is ultimately in here.

It’s all in the head, baby.

Experience is a product of the brain. Of course, paradoxes abound here, conundrums so profound you might as well say we have no fucking clue what’s going on. Just for instance: if the world is all in our heads, and our heads only make sense as things in the world, doesn’t that mean our head is also in our head? And if we can never get outside of our heads, how do we know we have a ‘head’ at all?

Immanuel Kant (the old pissant) not only made a career, but an entire philosophical religion out of that little riddle. He used it to split existence down the middle: the world in the head, which was the only world we could sense, and the world beyond the head, the transcendental world, which we could only ‘know’ through reason. Of course, since he was naive enough to think reason in the absence of scientifically regimented observation could actually do more than rationalize our desires, he thought he stumbled on a way to deliver God, morality, art and immortality from the fires of evil Hume.

That fucking Hume, man–watch out.

But that was then and this is Now. In terms of brain function, the experience you’re having at this very moment (looking at phrases like “looking at” stamped on this very page), is actually, cognitive scientists think, the product something called the thalamocortical system. The crazy thing about this system (or family of systems) is that it accesses only a fraction of the information buzzing through your brain. Some would even say less than a millionth. This means your experience, which is nothing other than the whole of your life condensed into a moment, Now, is nothing but the thinnest of slivers, a pin really, in a process that is way, way more vast. It means that you, reading this very book, are little more than a mote in a mountain of machinery.

But then, you say, why can’t I see any of this machinery? If I’m nothing more than a pin trapped inside a mountainous head, then why does it feel like, well, the exact opposite?

Because it has to. Since nothing of that mountain exists for experience, the mote literally becomes everything (which is why nonsense like idealism and solipsism and pan-psychism keep recurring like kinds of intellectual herpes). It becomes its own occluded frame of reference.

Or in other words, it becomes this… The moment you’re experiencing this very instant reading the words “this very instant”–back a couple of seconds ago.

Conscious experience ends at the information horizon of the thalamocortical system. But this ending isn’t like the ending of a movie; it isn’t an ending within experience, it’s an ending of experience. You can no more experience the limits of experience than you can see the edge of you visual field…

Or can you?

Although it’s true that you can never explicitly ‘see the limits of seeing’–no matter how fast you move your head–those limits are nonetheless a central structural feature of seeing. The way your visual field simply “runs out” without edge or demarcation is implicit in all seeing–and without the benefit of any “visual run off” circuits. Your field of vision simply hangs in a kind of hyper-blindness, a blindness you cannot see.

This is all the Now is: an implicit structural artifact of the way our ‘temporal field,’ what James called the ‘specious present,’ hangs in a kind temporal hyper-blindness. Time passes in experience, sure, but thanks to the information horizon of the thalamo-cortical system, experience itself stands still, and with nary a neural circuit to send a Christmas card to.

This is why, no matter where we find ourselves on the line of history, we always stand at the beginning. Thus the paradoxical structure of sayings like, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” We’re not simply running on hamster wheels, we are hamster wheels, traveling lifetimes without moving at all.

Time passes for us, and simultaneously passes us over.

So let’s go back to Dylan, high as a kite, freaking out about the Now. Just as his thalamocortical system lacks the recursive resources to “see its seeing,” it also lacks the ability to time its timing, which means an entire dimension of temporality goes undifferentiated. Just as the inability to see seeing implicitly structures his visual experience, so too does this inability to time timing implicitly structure his temporal experience: the absence of differentiation becomes a kind of background default identity. Each Now is the same Now. Just as he knows that what he sees, the world, encompasses his visual field, so too he knows that what he times, the world, encompasses his Now. But just as his visual field remains the ground of any seeing whatsoever, so too does the Now remain the ground of all timing.

History encloses him, and he encloses history.

How fucked up is that?

79

(Present)

Attend to the nonexistent limits of your visual field, the way nothing frames everything you see. Now imagine the same nothing reaching out from those limits, reaching around and behind you, englobing you, encapsulating you in time as well as space–generating the illusion of abiding motionlessness (for nothing is more immovable than nothing).

Fooling you.

80

(Inapplicable)

The Now is a kind of structurally mandated hallucination.

This is what Nancy was really trying to tell him. You run and you run, and you get nowhere. You’ll always be a day older than 17, 14, 8, every age you’ve ever been, and one day history will grab you by the scruff of the neck, and smear your face in 96, just like dog shit, and you’ll shout, “Fuck that! Fuck that! I’m seventeen! There’s been some kind mistake! Can’t you see I’m only eight?

Life is going to bench you, kid.

Then death is going to kick you off the team.

81

(Inapplicable)

The Now is a kind of profound gravitational mirage. Physicists have been insisting as much for years. There’s only earlier and later. “Before” and “after” are for losers who can’t follow the math. And not just any math, mind you–thermonuclear math.

So trust us when we tell you, the Now just makes no fucking sense.

And yet… the Now is everything.

Think about it. Set aside your prophylactic cynicism, your hmpf conviction that voices like mine are necessarily glib and gimmick prone (and that you, by default, are the measure of the profound).

Pause, Now. Breathe deep, and really think.

Absorb this…

That’s what Nancy was trying to tell him. Dylan–honey, sweetheart–the world is ending…

The Now will be no more–very soon.

Life is a kind of hallucination.

82

(Present)

So here you are–Now. Thanks to your thalamocortical system, you’re a living indexical, motionless, hanging outside of time, self-identical, even as the world bats you about, scars you, disfigures you beyond self-recognition. Your body rots around you, like an unharvested grape, and you are the same.

Small wonder our ancestors were duped into thinking they had souls…

Reread this in twenty years if you don’t believe me.

The words will still be here, waiting…

83

(Inapplicable)

Life is a paradox because we are impossible. We are impossible because we hold ourselves up by our own hair. We hold ourselves up by our own hair because what makes us possible does not exist for us. What makes us possible does not exist for us because of the information horizon of the thalamocortical system.

Someday some clever little prick is going to figure it all out, the kinds of structural compromises forced on sentient integrated information subsystems.

Someday our impossibility will become a genuine science

Then we’ll really be fucked.

84

(Inapplicable)

Paradox does not mark the limits of reason. Aporia does not point to some Messianic moment, the possibility of salvation in some transcendent rationality–some yet to be discovered miracle of thought.

It is simply a side-effect of this… A symptom of the delusion called “meaning.”

Imagine a magical brain, one that could track itself the way it tracks its environment. Imagine a brain that did not see trees, but rather “saw” trees causing it to see trees. There would be no experiential “aboutness” in this brain, and certainly no experiential “purpose.” In the former, the gap between the perceiver and the perceived would vanish, and the illusion of content along with it. Our models “of” trees would be models from trees. In the latter, since all the bottom-up processing that drives the formation of goals would be available, goals would not seem to drive behaviour the way they do for us. History would.

The flat phenomenology of mathematics would explode into a globalized consciousness of connectionist computation. Words would be processing biographies rather than boluses of association. Choice would be unimaginable. And there would be no Now, no existential hamster-wheel. No internal relations. No sliding simultaneity. No occluded field to hold contradictory claims together.

No paradox.

No self.

No this

85

(Present)

Consciousness is flat.

86

(Inapplicable)

Paradoxes are something we encounter because they are something we are. Because this… is always occluded, because it has no time and no place, we are able to outrun our references, aim them at themselves, or affirm A and not-A in glorious simultaneity. What we cannot discriminate remains the same.

Absence is our immovable foundation.

87

(Present)

If you find this largely incomprehensible, then you have some accounting to do. Somebody–you or me–has to take the wrap… Who’s lapping who?

The only real question is one of how obvious you’ll be.

88

(1984)

In the early days Jerry had always made a point of handing out the cheques first thing Thursday morning, usually saying something like, “My boyzzz needz deir payzzzz!” in his beaming rosy-lipped way. But as the season waxed, he became less and less dependable. He had apologized earlier that morning, swore up and down that he would have the cheques for them later that night. Of course, this infuriated Cutter, who lived both hand to mouth and 35 minutes away.

Dylan had adopted a strategy of shrugs and bewildered silence whenever in the company of the two men. Cutter, he knew, had been nursing his grudge since the first day of irrigating. As it turned out, Jerry had been honing resentments of his own for a much longer time. At this point, Cutter had missed four days without warning and explanation. On the first one, Jerry had joked and complained with sham indifference–things along the lines of “That Cutter, he-he…” On the second no-show, he was visibly pissed off, but aside from a couple of “What the fucks?” he kept his tongue. By the third no-show, he warily began unwinding his anger in words, his tone low and conspiratorial even when it was just the two of them out in the field. By the fourth, he was openly trying to recruit Dylan, as well as threatening to fire his old friend.

Jerr would grin his red-lipped grin, shake his head in his no-yes way, then suddenly clench in concentrated fury. On and off, as if some inner sprite was flicking his hate switch. Dylan verbally obliged him up to a point, but otherwise played the age-old game of securing verbal escape routes. When Jerry said something along the lines of, “Fucking stranded you with all the work,” Dylan would shrug as say something like, “More money for me.” When Jerry said something like, “Ask Harl, she’ll tell you. Cutter looks after Cutter.” Dylan would say something like, “Case in point.”

We always hedge, always leave room for future bullshit rationalizations. The less we think we do this, the more prone we are to do this.

Then one morning Cutter simply returned, joined them heels-scraping-the-driveway like always. Nothing was said. Everyone resumed their prior roles, but with the reserve of actors struggling to remember lines. “How the baby-blue ‘stang doing?” Cutter asked Dylan, grinning as though he had farted on his pillow. “Hit seventy-five thousand yet?”

“Soon.”

“Those Ford four-bangers. Programmed to self-destruct, I tell you.”

This was their cue to talk vehicles, one of several masculine subject matters designed to soak away animosities. Dylan watched the two men negotiate the terms of their mutual amnesia, contributing only the odd lanky nod. When they finally piled into the truck, Jerr cried, “For those about to rock! Owwooo!” and cranked the tunes loud enough for the three of them to bounce and sway in voiceless safety.

The whole affair struck Dylan as a kind of psychic atrocity, both because he had idealized the friendship between the two men, and because he realized he was trapped in the middle. He dreaded facing Cutter alone.

But in the field, their fingers still clean enough to sting, Cutter seemed downright penitent. When Dylan asked him what happened he just showed the scabbed knuckles on his right hand and said, “Don’t ask,” with a carnivorous grin. Of course, this “Cutter subdued” routine was little more than a ploy, a way to get Dylan to roll over on Jerry–to betray him. Cutter knew him the way wolves know sheep–which is to say, better than Dylan knew himself. He knew that expressions of remorse would engage his sympathies, would lure him into revealing what Jerry had said regarding his absence. He knew how confidences generated loyalties. And how sins produced face-saving rationalizations.

By midafternoon Cutter was back to his vicious best, and Dylan was chortling as loud as ever. They literally spent hours laughing at the “fat fucking cocksucker.”

Whenever Dylan laughed too hard, Cutter would pull him up short with some kind of quasi-apologetic reminder. “You know what I mean, though, eh? Jerr’s a good guy… he really is. This tobacco farm thing has just got him all fucked up.”

“It would fuck anybody up,” Dylan replied, nodding solemnly.

“Imagine what Harley’s going through.”

“Yeah… Imagine.”

X

(Indeterminate)

It no longer believes in the world that I live in.

Calm mornings on campus. It seems impossible, those rare moments you wake up and realize. The manicured lawns. The eclectic architectures. The youth and beauty and hope striding from point to point, or lolling in small groups on the grass. The wizened biology professor beaming good cheer. The lanky kid reading and smoking on the bench. Everyone proud, distracted and forlorn. Everyone intent.

Hapless.

You catch a whiff of tobacco at the front door, glimpse a crushed butt in the shadow of the flanking shrubbery, an orange spark still burning, unreeling smoke like tangled fishing-line. You glimpse a forgotten or discarded magazine that says, WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS? 8 VISIONS OF WHO WE ARE, and you smirk at that word, ‘who.’ The halls are never as full as they should be, or at least how you remember. Some stroll. Others march. Your classroom smells the same as every other classroom: like something athletic had happened not so long ago.

You joke with your students as they arrive, teasing this one who needs to be teased, flattering that one who needs to be flattered. A girl who is at once sturdy and gracile asks for too much help. A skinny dude drops a late paper on your desk and flees. And for a short time you are important, yours is the only voice that matters, and it fills you in this curious way, sates you…

A girl yawns in the back. You glimpse shaved armpits.

You bump into colleagues checking mailboxes in the office. Smiles and witticisms, awkward attempts to utter cliches without speaking them. It all seems so urbane, so civil, that a small corner of you never ceases to marvel–to rejoice. Like an ancient Chinese warlord, you never need fear your emperor. You fiefdom is wholly your own, so long as you observe certain minimal, bureaucratic niceties.

Say you worship the emperor.

There’s a weightlessness to authority when you’re happy, one comparable to that of wealth or beauty. Like the future, you have no mass. And so you sort them according to the way it is, all the while urging them to distrust you, to challenge you–and they even believe it, this horizontal pantomime, so much so they never dare distrust or challenge. Your displeasure cracks like a whip. Some even fall in love with you, as they should, given that this was the point all along, falling in love with the Law.

There’s a weightlessness to power, one that only the unhappy can truly comprehend. You suffer the death of curiosity that is confidence. You become increasingly immune to the judgments of others–and all the more admirable for it. Your smile becomes genuine. Your ledgers bulge with your ‘accomplishments,’ your ‘contributions’–to your wards, your discipline, your culture. And slowly, the horror is leached from your moments of lucidity–even your epiphanies become tidy. Yes. No one looks at trees quite the way you do.

Perhaps, your spouse hates you, but only if you are lucky. Otherwise, no one that matters.

You feel so fucking meaningful… digging your fingers into the fundamental, raising it up so that the blind might see. The very ground!

You give the gift of sight. You are a light in the dark, a gantry across the void. You are even-handed, fair-minded, in a hard-hearted, stone-faced world.

You only scrub viruses from your skin.